New theory could spur advances in nuclear fusion research

New theory could spur advances in nuclear fusion research

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News & Events - Engineering News

May 1, 2012

A breakthrough in engineering research could help scientists overcome the obstacles that have thus far prevented them from understanding the science underlying nuclear fusion.

Researchers at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL), which is operated by the U.S. Department of Energy, have developed a new theory that could more effectively explain the processes taking place in a fusion reactor's plasma. Engineers have long struggled to ascertain how plasma responds in such conditions, which has complicated research efforts.

MIT's Technology Review reports that although scientists have successfully improved the energy generation capacity in experimental nuclear fusion reactors over the past few decades, such equipment is, for all intense and purposes, useless. According to MIT fusion researcher Martin Greenwald, the energy produced in fusion reactors at labs across the U.S. has jumped by 12 orders of magnitude.

However, today's technology does not create more electricity than it consumes, and it cannot be run continuously, making it ineffectual in power plants. Overcoming that hurdle could help scientists develop improved fusion designs that would outperform the world's most advanced energy generation equipment, as nuclear fusion could fundamentally alter the global energy landscape.

The latest theory from the Princeton lab scientists focuses on the inner workings of the fusion reactor. Engineers at the research lab posited that tiny masses form within the plasma, ultimately cooling it and causing it to dissolve. They contended that because such masses can be identified with relative ease, they could potentially be manipulated to maintain the plasma's stability.

The theory, if proven correct, could help scientists develop a more nuanced timetable of the events transpiring in a nuclear fusion reactor. As a result, they could potentially craft novel reactor models that come closer to facilitating an optimum plasma density, according to the news provider.

David Gates, a research physicist at the Princeton lab and co-author of the theory, said that overcoming plasma's density limit would represent one of the most significant breakthroughs in engineering research and development of the past half century. He told the Newark Star-Ledger that if the masses, or islands, that occur in fusion reactors could explain the plasma limit, then the new equation could hold the key to unlocking their secrets.

"It was really a very simple idea," according to Gates. "It was just a matter of putting all the pieces together."

Still, while the latest theory to emanate from the Princeton lab is generating a significant amount of intrigue among the scientific community, it is still only in the beginning stages of its development. Greenwald conceded that the team's theory and resulting equation are plausible, but he said there are still a number of questions left unanswered.

According to Greenwald, the theory only explains a portion of the processes involved in limiting the density of the plasma. What's more, he noted that scientists must still work through a number of practical issues, including logistical and functionality problems, that have plagued reactor designs since the 1970s.

Gates added that scientists could begin testing the theory as early as this year. His work, which he co-authored with Luis Delgado-Aparicio, was published last week in the journal Physical Review Letters.


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