Scientists design new magnets to provide room for sustained nuclear fusion reactions

Scientists are working to realize the potential of nuclear fusion as a nearly inexhaustible source of clean energy, one of the ways that is through new and improved magnets that confine the fields of plasmas so that key reactions can occur . A new example that represents a “revolutionary change” in the way these components are made could form a key piece of the “puzzle” by making the type of superheated and sustained plasma flow needed for fusion power generation a reality.

The magnet was developed by scientists at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) to improve the performance of so-called tokamak fusion reactors. These donut-shaped devices are designed to confine a toroidal flow of plasma, causing atoms to fuse together under extreme pressure and heat, releasing enormous amounts of energy over time.

But one of the many difficulties in achieving these sustained streams of plasma is the threat they pose to the condition of the central electromagnet, a solenoid that generates both an electric current and a magnetic field. High-energy subatomic particles called neutrons, ejected from the plasma, can eat away at the insulation of magnet coils, affecting their performance and longevity.

Scientists design new magnets to provide room for sustained nuclear fusion reactions

Scientists design new magnets to provide room for sustained nuclear fusion reactions

“If we were designing a power plant that would run continuously for hours or days, then we couldn’t use current magnets,” said Yuhu Zhai, a principal engineer at PPPL and lead author of a paper describing the research. “These facilities will produce far more energetic particles than current experimental facilities. Magnets produced today will not last long enough for facilities such as future commercial fusion power plants.”

To develop their new magnet, the scientists crafted wires made of niobium and tin that were heated in a special way to form a new type of superconductor. The new wiring material allows electricity to flow at extremely low temperatures with little resistance, reducing the need for insulation. The result is that the wiring is less prone to degradation, and the researchers say it offers other improvements in performance.

“In our tests, our magnet produced 83 percent of the maximum current that the wire could carry, which is a very good amount,” Zhai said. “When scientists design and build high-power magnets, they usually only use 70% of the current capacity of superconducting wires. Large magnets like those used in ITER, an international nuclear fusion facility under construction in France, usually only use 50%.”

The magnets are also said to be simpler and cheaper to manufacture than current solutions. And, since it can operate at higher current densities, it can take up less space inside the tokamak while allowing stronger magnetic fields to be generated.

Michael Zarnstorff, PPPL’s chief scientific officer, said: “This is a revolutionary change in how you build electromagnets. By making the magnets out of only metal and eliminating the need to use insulators, you get rid of a lot of expensive steps and reduce the number of coils. Chances of failure. That’s really, really important stuff.”

The research was published in the journal Superconductor Science and Technology.

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