In the beginning, there was the thermonuclear bomb – mankind had harnessed the energy of the Sun. Confident predictions abounded that fusion reactors would be providing power “too cheap to meter” within ten years. Sixty years later many observers are beginning to wonder if billions of dollars of effort has been lost in digging out dry wells. Now a new simulation study carried out at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico, suggests that magnetized inertial fusion (MIF) experiments could be retrofitted to existing pulsed-power facilities to obtain fusion break-even.
Fusion power results from combining the nuclei of light atoms to make heavier ones, while in the process releasing ~1% of their mass-energy. Research on controlled fusion power has focused primarily on two paths – magnetic confinement fusion and inertial confinement fusion.
In magnetic confinement fusion, a very low density plasma is held at perhaps 200 million degrees K for about a second. In inertial confinement fusion, an enormously dense (~ 100 times the density of solid lead) is enormous, and rapid compression to that density produces a hot plasma, but the confinement time is only about a nanosecond.
Neither approach has demonstrated break-even performance – where the fusion power released is greater than the energy required to establish and maintain the fusing plasma.
Magnetized Inertial Fusion
The magnetized inertial fusion method works like this. A sample of mixed deuterium-tritium gas is placed in a small conducting cylindrical target. The target is placed in an extremely strong axial magnetic field (typically tens of Tesla in intensity). A pulsed laser is used to heat the sample gas, following which the cylinder is subjected to rapid radial compression, either by an imploding laser pulse or by an extremely strong current. Fusion follows.
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