Our dreams of nuclear fusion are drawing ever nearer thanks to a scientific leap forward in Germany. On Wednesday, a team of researchers at Max Planck Institute in Greifswald switched on the Wendelstein 7-X stellarator for the very first time with a little help from Chancellor Angela Merkel. It was a fitting honor for Time Magazine’s Person of the Year, as Merkel herself is a physicist. With temperatures reaching 80 million degrees Celsius, the stellarator successfully generated its first hydrogen plasma, bringing us closer to nuclear fusion power.
Nuclear fusion, which involves the combination of two lighter atomic nuclei into one heavy nucleus, generates a massive amount of energy that physicists believe can be harvested as an incredibly clean energy source.
The $435 million device will be instrumental in scientists’ attempts to test the potential of a fusion reactor, and its operation yesterday is just the beginning of further work that will determine its “suitability for use in a power plant.” When Merkel pressed a button yesterday, the stellarator generated “a 2-megawatt pulse of microwave” which “transformed a tiny quantity of hydrogen gas into an extremely hot low-density hydrogen plasma.” This, scientists say, allows for the “separation of the electrons from the nuclei of the hydrogen atoms.”
As exciting as these latest developments are, scientists say that they’re only the tip of the iceberg in their experiments. This initial phase is expected to last through mid-March. Afterwards, researchers will look to create an environment that allows for “higher heating powers, higher temperatures, and longer discharges lasting up to ten seconds,” Professor Thomas Klinger, the project lead says. It is anticipated that the full tests will take around four years to complete, whereupon scientists will be able to sustain discharges that last 30 minutes with heating power of 20 megawatts. It is only at that point that they’ll be able to completely determine whether the Wendelstein 7-X can actually reach its optimization targets.
“It’s a very clean source of power, the cleanest you could possibly wish for,” said John Jelonnek, a physicist at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology whose team is responsible for the huge microwave ovens that will transform the hydrogen into plasma. “We’re not doing this for us but for our children and grandchildren.”