Researchers have discovered mechanisms critical to interactions between hot plasma and surfaces facing the plasma inside a thermonuclear fusion reactor, part of work aimed at developing coatings capable of withstanding the grueling conditions inside the reactors.
Fusion powers the stars and could lead to a limitless supply of clean energy. A fusion power plant would produce 10 times more energy than a conventional nuclear fission reactor, and because the deuterium fuel is contained in seawater, a fusion reactor’s fuel supply would be virtually inexhaustible.
Research at Purdue University focuses on the “plasma-material interface,” a crucial region where the inner lining of a fusion reactor comes into contact with the extreme heat of the plasma. Nuclear and materials engineers are harnessing nanotechnology to define tiny features in the coating in work aimed at creating new “plasma-facing” materials tolerant to radiation damage, said Jean Paul Allain, an assistant professor of nuclear engineering.
One lining being considered uses lithium, which is applied to the inner graphite wall of the reactor and diffuses into the graphite, creating an entirely new material called lithiated graphite. The lithiated graphite binds to deuterium atoms in fuel inside fusion reactors known as tokamaks. The machines house a magnetic field to confine a donut-shaped plasma of deuterium, an isotope of hydrogen.
During a fusion reaction, some of the deuterium atoms strike the inner walls of the reactor and are either “pumped,” causing them to bind with the lithiated graphite, or returned to the core and recycled back to the plasma. This process can be “tuned” by these liners to control how much deuterium fuel is retained.