29th August 2015
Breakthrough in fusion energy
U.S. physicists have achieved a breakthrough in fusion power by containing superheated hydrogen plasma for five milliseconds, far longer than any other effort before.
California-based Tri Alpha Energy reportedly held gas in a steady state at 10,000,000°C – only stopping when they ran out of fuel. Particle physicist and adviser to the secretive company, Burton Richter of Stanford University, comments: "They've succeeded finally in achieving a lifetime limited only by the power available to the system."
"Until you learn to control and tame [the hot gas], it's never going to work. In that regard, it's a big deal. They seem to have found a way to tame it," says Jaeyoung Park, head of rival fusion startup Energy/Matter Conversion Corporation in San Diego. "The next question is how well can you confine [heat in the gas]. I give them the benefit of the doubt. I want to watch them for the next 2 or 3 years."
Tri Alpha Energy's reactor is based on field-reversed configuration (FRC). This was first observed in the laboratory in the late 1950s. For decades, research on FRC was limited to plasma lasting for a maximum of only 0.3 milliseconds. In recent experiments, Tri Alpha Energy achieved a huge increase of up to two milliseconds. During their latest attempts, reported this week in the journal Science, angled beams at higher energies of 10 megawatts maintained stability for even longer – five milliseconds without decaying.
The company's goal is to scale their technique up to longer times and higher temperatures (3 billion degrees Celsius), such that atomic nuclei will collide with enough force to fuse and release energy. Tri Alpha Energy intends to dismantle their current machine and build a more powerful version in 2016. Houyang Guo, Chief Experimental Strategist, during a recent physics seminar at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, revealed that confinement times of 100 milliseconds to one second might be possible in the near future. Ultimately, fusion reactors could supply humanity with a practically limitless supply of clean energy.