New magnetic breakthrough could unleash smaller, more efficient fusion reactors

Nuclear fusion is virtually unlimited energy and the deregulation of the detrimental effect of fossil fuel consumption.

Researchers from the US Department of Energy’s (DOE) Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) have announced that they have found a way to build powerful magnets much smaller than ever before, a press release reveals.

The new innovation could aid the development of tokamak reactors, unleashing the potential of nuclear fusion.

We are on the verge of viable nuclear fusion

Scientists have found a new way to build high-temperature superconducting magnets made of a material that conducts electricity almost without any resistance at temperatures higher than before. Smaller magnets will fit more easily inside the spherical tokamak, which is being investigated as a potential alternative to the more traditional donut-shaped tokamak.

Fusion scientists and engineers use these incredibly powerful magnets to control and maintain the hot plasma needed for the nuclear fusion reaction to occur. Crucially, the new magnets can be placed separately from other machines in the central cavity of the spherical tokamak. This means that scientists will be able to repair it without having to disassemble any other parts of the tokamak.

Explained Yuhu Chai, principal engineer at PPPL and lead author of a research paper on new magnets published in IEEE Transactions on Applied Superconductivity. “The only way to do that is by using Superconducting wires, and that’s what we did.”

The magnets could also allow scientists to develop smaller tokamaks, which could improve performance as well as reduce the cost of building and operating. “The tokamak is sensitive to conditions in its central regions, including the size of the central magnet, or solenoid, shield, and vessel discharge,” said John Maynard, deputy director of research at PPPL. “A lot depends on the center. So if you can trim things in the middle, you can shrink the whole machine and reduce cost while, in theory, improving performance.”

New technology makes magnets cheaper, smaller, and more powerful

The new magnets were designed using a technology developed by Zhai and colleagues at Advanced Conductor Technologies, the University of Colorado, Boulder, and the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory, in Tallahassee, Florida. They have devised a technology that does not require traditional epoxy and fiberglass insulation for their magnetic wires, allowing them to reduce the size.

By removing the epoxy from the equation, the researchers also reduce the cost of magnet production, which will also result in a cheaper tokamak. Chai said coil winding costs a lot less because we don’t have to go through the expensive and error-prone epoxy impregnation process. Instead, you wind the conductor directly into the coil shape.

Smaller magnets would, in theory, allow for more iterations of the tokamak design, as they could easily be placed in different locations, allowing for more configurations. We may still be far from seeing the first fully operational fusion reactor, but this new development brings us one step closer to commercially viable nuclear fusion.

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