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Commercial Nuclear Fusion Is Closer Than Ever

Not all the news this week is doom and gloom. First, there was the report that coronavirus is actually saving lives in China thanks to the dramatic drop in deathly pollution levels as the country’s industries have been shut down. Now, a scientist out of New Jersey says he’s made a breakthrough that brings us one step closer to the holy grail of clean energy. 

Nuclear fusion has long been touted as a silver bullet solution to climate change, with it’s hugely efficient, emissions-free energy production with none of the radioactive waste that nuclear fission leaves us to contend with for hundreds of thousands of years. Unlike nuclear fission, which requires radioactive fuel sources such as enriched uranium, nuclear fusion can be carried out using only hydrogen for fuel, which is what naturally occurs on the sun 24 hours a day. 

This week, the story broke that a New Jersey researcher had “a nuclear fusion breakthrough while helping his son with a science project.”  Popular Mechanics reported that “he realized he could explore which kinds of permanent magnets could be powerful and stable enough to be part of a fusion reactor concept called a stellarator.” 

A stellarator is similar to a tokamak, the better-known donut-shared particle accelerator that is employed by several high-profile nuclear fusion experiments including France’s ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor). Like a tokamak, the stellarator must be run at immensely high heats to simulate the surface of the sun in order to facilitate nuclear fusion. This makes them extremely energy-intensive, expensive, and a bit unpredictable. “The stability of these generators is really up to chance, based on a carefully managed magnetic field.” says Popular Mechanics, “Extremely hot moving plasma ends up corroding the materials containing it, and these small changes can drop the temperature and throw the fusion reactor out of the power generating zone. This is where permanent magnets could change the landscape of plasma reactor design.”

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But researcher Michael Zarnstorff of the Max Planck-Princeton Research Center for Plasma Physics says that he may have found a solution to some of these challenges through the use of permanent magnets. That breakthrough has now led to an in-depth study with three other researchers to reach a permanent magnet design detailed in a paper that the researchers published in the science journal Nature on Friday. The paper makes it clear how impactful these scientists believe their research is through its cheeky title: “A simple fusion recipe.” 

The core of that recipe is the aforementioned permanent magnet, which Popular Mechanics defines as a magnet “whose magnetic charge comes from the chemical makeup of the material itself, like the interplay between individual electrons.” The article continues: “This is different from something like an electromagnet—whether that’s a copper wire electromagnet or the magnetic field generated by the Earth. If behaviors or assemblies generate magnetic force, that’s a temporary magnet. These magnets can’t generate the required plasma flux inside a stellarator, but researchers say they can shape the course of the plasma and help to rein it in.”

This breakthrough is just the latest in a number of leaps forward for nuclear fusion technology in the past year. Last July, ITER announced that they would be achieving first plasma in their tokamak by just 2025. Then, less than a month later, Oak Ridge National Laboratory reported that their implementation of AI and supercomputing could successfully scale up nuclear fusion and plasma management. Fast forward to October of last year, when the Los Alamos National Laboratory's Plasma Liner Experiment (PLX) announced a futuristic combo of plasma guns, magnets, and lasers for a hybrid approach that could be achieving fusion within the year. And then, in February, Australian startup HB11 began patenting their own laser technology for nuclear fusion all over the world.

Whether it’s magnets, lasers, or plasma guns that get us there, commercial nuclear fusion is closer to reality than ever, and, once achieved, nearly nothing will ever be the same.

By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com

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