Scientists have long been looking for a way to develop nuclear fusion, which could offer a limitless source of clean power as the world begins to phase out fossil fuels. Fusion, which is the energy that powers the sun and other stars, combines light elements in the form of hot, charged particles known as plasma to generate massive amounts of energy.
Now, researchers have come one step closer to harnessing this inexhaustible power, as experts at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) have made new breakthroughs that could make it easier to successfully create and sustain nuclear fusion.
The team discovered that by updating a mathematical model to include a physical property known as resistivity, they could develop an improved design of a tokamak, which doughnut-shaped fusion facility where charged particles are used to try and create nuclear fusion.
PPPL physicist Nathaniel Ferraro, one of the collaborating researchers said: “Resistivity is the property of any substance that inhibits the flow of electricity.
“It’s kind of like the viscosity of a fluid, which inhibits things moving through it.
“For example, a stone will move more slowly through molasses than water, and more slowly through water than through air.”
Nuclear fusion has the potential to generate more than four million times the amount of energy released by an equivalent chemical reaction — such as the burning of coal, oil or gas — and four times that of nuclear fission, which involves the splitting of atoms.
Alongside this, fusion technology has the benefits of being virtually unlimited, intrinsically safe and completely free of any greenhouse gas emissions and nuclear waste.
In the latest study, scientists discovered that resistivity could also cause instability in the plasma edge, which causes temperatures and pressures to rise sharply.
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By incorporating resistivity into models that predict the behaviour of plasma, scientists can design systems for future fusion facilities that make the plasma more stable.
Lead author Andreas Kleiner said: “We want to use this knowledge to figure out how to develop a model that allows us to plug in certain plasma characteristics and predict whether the plasma will be stable before we actually do an experiment,
“Basically, in this research, we saw that resistivity matters and our models ought to include it.”
By stabilising the plasma, the researchers will prevent plasma eruptions known as edge-localized modes (ELMs) that can damage internal components of the tokamak over time, requiring those components to be replaced more frequently.
This will allow advanced fusion reactors of the future to operate for months at a time before being repaired.
The UK is currently leading the way in developing fusion technology, with Spherical Tokamak for Energy Production (STEP) project currently in its initial, “concept design” phase, which will be completed by 2024.
Earlier this year, Britain made a major fusion breakthrough after the record was smashed for the amount of energy that can be extracted from nuclear fusion.