It seems like we're constantly just around the corner from fusion power, and that soon it'll solve our energy woes. While we're not quite there yet, three new reports all indicate we're at least getting a little closer.
A joint project between MIT and Columbia University has shown the possibility of a new path towards nuclear fusion. By using extremely large and powerful donut shaped magnets, the scientists have created an environment were plasma becomes more densely concentrated — through a phenomenon known as turbulent pinching. To create this system, a half-ton torus magnet is suspended inside a magnetic field, and then the plasma forms around it. This is known as a Levitating Dipole Experiment, and offers a possible third way of generating nuclear power, separate from the current tokamaks and inertial fusion methods.
Breakthroughs have also been made in the field of inertial fusion, and researchers at the National Ignition Facility in Livermore, California have taken us a step closer to ignition. The research group have proven that the conditions for fusion can be caused in a lab. To do so require the use of a phenomenal laser rig the size of three football fields, which aims an array of 192 lasers at a small capsule. In a fully functional reactor, this capsule would house deuterium and tritium for the fuel source. The lasers would heat the capsule to 3.3 million Kelvin (5.9 million degrees Fahrenheit, for you imperial types), which would cause an implosion of the fuel in the capsule, and release usable energy.
Also in the field of inertial fusion, an article published in the current issue of Science shows that a group of researchers have found a way to analyze what would occur in these implosions. By using a number of techniques — including monoenergetic proton radiography and charged-particle spectroscopy — the group lead by Chikang Li can probe the implosion of the capsules as well as the projected energy. The data gathered from this can be used to better understand the feasibility of fusion, record the energy involved, and possibly increase our understanding of how this reactions function in the stars.
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