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Power Earth Science Technology

'Star In a Jar' Fusion Reactor Works, Promises Infinite Energy (space.com) 431

An anonymous reader quotes a report from Space.com: For several decades now, scientists from around the world have been pursuing a ridiculously ambitious goal: They hope to develop a nuclear fusion reactor that would generate energy in the same manner as the sun and other stars, but down here on Earth. Incorporated into terrestrial power plants, this "star in a jar" technology would essentially provide Earth with limitless clean energy, forever. And according to new reports out of Europe this week, we just took another big step toward making it happen. In a study published in the latest edition of the journal Nature Communications, researchers confirmed that Germany's Wendelstein 7-X (W7-X) fusion energy device is on track and working as planned. The space-age system, known as a stellerator, generated its first batch of hydrogen plasma when it was first fired up earlier this year. The new tests basically give scientists the green light to proceed to the next stage of the process. It works like this: Unlike a traditional fission reactor, which splits atoms of heavy elements to generate energy, a fusion reactor works by fusing the nuclei of lighter atoms into heavier atoms. The process releases massive amounts of energy and produces no radioactive waste. The "fuel" used in a fusion reactor is simple hydrogen, which can be extracted from water. The W7-X device confines the plasma within magnetic fields generated by superconducting coils cooled down to near absolute zero. The plasma -- at temperatures upwards of 80 million degrees Celsius -- never comes into contact with the walls of the containment chamber. Neat trick, that. David Gates, principal research physicist for the advanced projects division of PPPL, leads the agency's collaborative efforts in regard to the W7-X project. In an email exchange from his offices at Princeton, Gates said the latest tests verify that the W7-X magnetic "cage" is working as planned. "This lays the groundwork for the exciting high-performance plasma operations expected in the near future," Gates said.
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'Star In a Jar' Fusion Reactor Works, Promises Infinite Energy

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  • Reads Like An Ad (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Koby77 ( 992785 ) on Saturday December 10, 2016 @03:05AM (#53457901)
    Is this an advertisement to invest in yet another unlimited free energy scam? Wake me up when some progress occurs.
    • Re:Reads Like An Ad (Score:5, Informative)

      by meerling ( 1487879 ) on Saturday December 10, 2016 @04:10AM (#53458065)
      There are other articles on other science sites that read better. This particular fusion system is a stellerator, a type that is currently looking to be the best of our experimental fusion systems for several reasons, not the least of which is that it doesn't have the same leakage and containment vessel damage, a huge problem with tokamaks.
      Of course saying unlimited or infinite energy are just hyperbole, though it would have a lot of advantages over normal power generation methods.
      • This particular fusion system is a stellerator, a type that is currently looking to be the best of our experimental fusion systems for several reasons, not the least of which is that it doesn't have the same leakage and containment vessel damage, a huge problem with tokamaks.

        I'm in my 50s, and I've been hearing that practical fusion generators were only 10-15 years off since I was a little nerdling. Then in college we were hearing how tokamaks were likely to solve all the problems inherent with stellarator designs. Now we're back to the future, I guess.

        Fusion reactors would be great; but It sure doesn't seem like they've made much real progress at all over the past several decades.

        • by thegarbz ( 1787294 ) on Saturday December 10, 2016 @05:19AM (#53458205)

          Fusion reactors would be great; but It sure doesn't seem like they've made much real progress at all over the past several decades.

          Identifying ways things don't work is still progress when it comes to research. Saying that not much real progress has been made just means you're not actually paying attention to it in anything other than some occasional Slashdot post or the first paragraph of a newspaper article.

          • by Bongo ( 13261 )

            Indeed. Here's my prediction for the future: it won't work, until it does.

            And didn't Edison quip something about, I just discovered 10,000 ways not to invent the electric light bulb...

            • Indeed. Here's my prediction for the future: it won't work, until it does.

              And didn't Edison quip something about, I just discovered 10,000 ways not to invent the electric light bulb...

              And I believe Tesla replied, "If Edison had thought more clearly, he wouldn't have had to work so hard."

        • Had we invested money in this type of research instead of war for oil, we could have done a lot more a lot faster. Yes it has taken a lot more time than some expected. The same goes with moon bases and flying cars.

          Fusion is still farther away than 10-15 years, probably further than 50.

          The point and what matters here is that we are seeing progress now (with concepts that date back to the 50s).
        • It sure doesn't seem like they've made much real progress at all over the past several decades.

          So .... basically you haven't been paying attention.

        • by TheRaven64 ( 641858 ) on Saturday December 10, 2016 @07:20AM (#53458427) Journal

          I'm in my 50s, and I've been hearing that practical fusion generators were only 10-15 years off since I was a little nerdling

          There was an article a few years back that put these in perspective. They pointed out that N years in the future really means $M dollars more spending in the future and that these predictions have been quite consistent: if we'd kept funding at the anticipated rate in the '60s, we might have working fusion already.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by thegarbz ( 1787294 )

      Is this an advertisement to invest in yet another unlimited free energy scam? Wake me up when some progress occurs.

      Yes it is an advertisement, you can buy one of these off the shelf next week.
      And Yes it is a scam. because all prestigious research institutes do nothing but produce free energy scams.
      And Yes confirmation that the physical device matches theoretical modelling is not "progress" either.

      Maybe we should do an academic study on how using the word fusion makes people's brains devolve to a state of uneducated retardedness.

    • Is this an advertisement to invest in yet another unlimited free energy scam? Wake me up when some progress occurs.

      Unlimited energy sources imply that current sources of energy would be made irrelevant. While you're jumping up and down over the concept of this actually working, I'll still be asleep waiting for a greedy capitalistic society to accept it, for THAT is the real challenge we face with any technology like this.

      Greed has withstood the sands of time, along with all of the pain and suffering it has brought to humanity. That is a disease that is not easily cured.

      • by Bongo ( 13261 )

        I think you misunderstand the concept of "greed". First, it is a concept, not an ontological entity. Second, as a concept dreamt up by humans, it served some purpose in how we model the world around us and our relationship to others. Third, those models may have been useful 4000 years ago, and 2000, and maybe 200 years ago, but one day they will no longer be useful. Fourth, just consider that the average wealth and amenities available to you today, would only be available to kings in previous generations. C

  • by backslashdot ( 95548 ) on Saturday December 10, 2016 @03:10AM (#53457913)

    1. Tokamak -- has never underperformed models
    2. Stellarator -- appears like it will work.
    3. MagLIF -- Experiments are following model predictions.

    The reason why magnetic fusion doesn't work yet is because of the budget needed to build a large enough reactor.

    The reason laser fusion hasn't worked is because the models have been failing. Basically using a neodymium laser works in computer modeling but in real life it sucks. In fact a laser beam itself is too coherent.

    Anyway, we still have a track to fusion it is X number of years away because ITER was supposed to be built in 1984 and now it's scheduled for 2035 because of budget reasons. Tokamak has always worked as predicted or better.

    MagLIF is probably the easiest and cheapest route to fusion. Lockheed seems to have a good approach too.

    • by naasking ( 94116 )

      Focus fusion and Polywell are also promising, but underfunded.

  • modern journalism (Score:5, Informative)

    by sheramil ( 921315 ) on Saturday December 10, 2016 @03:16AM (#53457933)
    Headline says "Fusion Reactor works".

    Article says "Topology of magnetic field confirmed."

    they still haven't powered the thing up. they still don't know if it will work. headlines like this make me want to slap the writer across the face with a bowling ball in a string bag until they stop lying. and then a few more times just to make sure the lesson sticks.

    • Re:modern journalism (Score:5, Informative)

      by michael_rendier ( 2601249 ) on Saturday December 10, 2016 @03:31AM (#53457965) Homepage
      this is old news...they have turned it on and it was able to sustain containment of the helium plasma for it's test run of one 10000th of a second. they have apparently also sustained containment of a hydrogen plasma too since then... http://www.iflscience.com/phys... [iflscience.com]
    • by Tough Love ( 215404 ) on Saturday December 10, 2016 @05:30AM (#53458245)

      The headline is misleading crap and the summary is embarrassing puff piece for dummies, who apparently are not expected to know what nuclear fusion is. (Hmm, is there anybody reading this site who doesn't know that? If so, you need to go back to your fake Facebook news, Zuck is missing you.)

      The project is real enough and it's exciting, as in, it's a fusion design concept that has not yet hit the wall. As far as I can tell, the Wendelstein 7-X is not expected to achieve ignition, much less energy break-even or commercial viability, rather it is intended to demonstrate that a plasma can be sustained over a long period (30 minutes) above ignition temperature (somewhere around 100 million degrees). That's exciting. However, there is no particular new news about this. Wikipedia lists a timeline item of Hydrogen plasma at 80 million degrees for 0.25s. [wikipedia.org] As far as I can tell, the device is currently all apart, being upgraded in advance of a new series of tests that should achieve that, following successful plasma confinement tests early this year. That's all we know. No new news... probably no new news until sometime in the new year. More or less on track, it would seem. Given the sad history of over promising and under delivering in the fusion sector, it is understandable and laudable that the we aren't seeing a lot of breathless predictions from the project. Assuming that Wendelstein 7-X proves something about practicality of the stellarator approach, I assume the next step would be funding for a fancier one. Eventually, the might prove that ITER should be a stellarator and not a tokamak. Who knows. It does not feel like free energy for everyone in the immediate future, but it does feel like progress.

      • by Cyberax ( 705495 )
        ITER is not a prototype of a commercial fusion reactor. It's more of a plasma physics lab, specifically designed to support various experiments and advance engineering required to build a real reactor.

        Lots of ITER advances are as important for stellerators or other approaches as they are for tokamaks: neutral beam injectors (essential for open plasma trap systems), RF plasma heating (essential for stellerators), all the material science required to deal with tremendous heat flow with high neutron fluxes,
    • OK, just tell them afterwards that you did it because you love them.

  • Stellerator (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday December 10, 2016 @03:20AM (#53457939)

    The key part is omitted, this is a new version (of an old idea) of a field arrangement that is believed to confine the plasma better:

    "The stellarator is different from the other toroidal magnetic surface concepts in that both the toroidal and the poloidal field components—which together create the magnetic surface topology—are created from currents in external coils. In the tokamak and the reversed-field pinch2, a strong toroidal current driven within the plasma is needed to generate the poloidal magnetic-field component. The stellarator’s lack of a strong current parallel to the magnetic field greatly reduces macroscopic plasma instabilities, and it eliminates the need for steady-state current drive. This makes it a more stable configuration, capable of steady-state operation. These are important advantages for a power plant....The stellarator was invented by Lyman Spitzer in the 1950s (ref. 3). So why did it fall behind? And why do some believe that it is about to have a comeback?"

    • Re:Stellerator (Score:5, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward on Saturday December 10, 2016 @06:02AM (#53458299)

      Apparently, design of stellarator is too complicated for human mind. Proper positioning of magnetic coils has to be simulated on a supercomputer. Only the recent advancements in computer technology allowed to make stellarators more efficient than tokamaks.

      http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2015/10/bizarre-reactor-might-save-nuclear-fusion

    • by darkain ( 749283 )

      Probably the EXACT same reason why the LFTR nuclear reactor fell behind... Because they cant be used to make bombs. Seriously. That's it.

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/... [wikipedia.org]

  • I'm sick of these articles that sound like they are mansplaining the basics of tomahawk fusion that we have known since the 1970s and then claims its a new thing. Moreover, they supposedly have a working commercial reactor when we know that a commercial reactor would need to be ITER sized for positive energy generation. Can we keep this crap off slashdot?
    • Tokamak, sorry autocorrect
      • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

        by Anonymous Coward

        No no no, i wanna hear more about this tomahawk fusion, sounds way cooler. 10/10 would pledge its Kickstart!

        • No no no, i wanna hear more about this tomahawk fusion, sounds way cooler.

          Actually, boomerang fusion is more fun and a hoot and a half for the whole family.

          Just remember to "Duck and Cover" after you toss it.

      • by dbIII ( 701233 )
        It is a very new thing to many readers because so little investment has been put in that development has taken decades. We've heard of things ten years ago but they have not - it just hasn't made it into the press much lately.
        It sounds dumbed down because even here it is difficult to underestimate the technical background of the readers - when a space story comes up most seem to think in terms or orbits as fixed one dimensional circles and anything about electricity generation degenerates into a grade scho
    • by Mitreya ( 579078 )

      Can we keep this crap off slashdot?

      Not until we all agree on 1) How Trump is going to use this invention and 2) How, if discovered earlier, it could have changed the outcome of this election.

    • That's no longer the case. Increases in high-temperature high field superconductors have reduced the size necessary dramatically.

      Here's a (refreshingly not dumbed down) talk by the head of MIT's Nuclear Science & Engineering department that discusses this in some detail: https://www.youtube.com/watch?... [youtube.com]

  • Reliable fusion power would be great. But it's not actually that different from fission power: it still produces lots of radioactive waste.

    • by ShanghaiBill ( 739463 ) on Saturday December 10, 2016 @04:03AM (#53458051)

      it still produces lots of radioactive waste.

      Fusion produces less waste than fission, and it is shorter lived. But it doesn't help with the political problems. The Greenies and NIMBYs are going to oppose fusion just like they oppose fission.

      • The Greenies and NIMBYs are going to oppose fusion just like they oppose fission.

        Not quite true. They don't all oppose fission out of hand. For a take on nuclear from one of the UK's more renowned green journalists, George Monbiot, see http://www.monbiot.com/category/nuclear/ [monbiot.com]

      • by AmiMoJo ( 196126 ) <mojo@nOspAm.world3.net> on Saturday December 10, 2016 @07:46AM (#53458467) Homepage Journal

        Greenie here. We need fusion and should develop it. What I object to is it being used as an excuse to delay transitioning to clean energy. Eventually it will work and be great for special applications like spacecraft and some kind of role on the electrical grid, but realistically even if we had a working design today most of the world wouldn't be able to build and operate it, not to mention the yet to be determined cost.

        There are similar safety issues to fission, mostly to do with managing and storing waste, but they are lessened by the fact that you don't need a limitless supply of water and can thus build the plant in a safer location. Still needs massive regulation and oversight of course.

      • > Fusion produces less waste than fission

        The only currently available large scale source of tritium for D-T fusion reactors is fission power plants, so there is a very large problem with using fusion energy to reduce the number of fission plants.

  • This is just the first step in a long road. Art imitates life. Life imitates art.
  • Lemme guess- this fusion reactor is just 20 years from opening, right?

  • 'Star In a Jar' Fusion Reactor Works, Promises Infinite Energy

    I thought the story was going to be that a company named Infinite Energy was pushing a snake-oil product called Star in a Jar.

  • How big is the containment vessel? How much energy are we talking about in that space? What would happen if you fired a magnetic bullet at it? What would happen in a catastrophic failure?

    • Re:Magnetic bullet? (Score:5, Informative)

      by gatzke ( 2977 ) on Saturday December 10, 2016 @09:03AM (#53458625) Homepage Journal

      The small amount of plasma is confined using magnetic forces.

      If they lose containment, the pressure and temperature on the plasma reduce significantly and the reaction no longer takes place. There is no runaway scenario AFAIK.

      I have been down the hall from a tokamak when it is firing. I have also walked next to a tokamak when it is off. I have crawled through stellarator rings. These things are not scary, they are impressive.

    • by PPH ( 736903 )

      What would happen if you fired a magnetic bullet at it?

      Plant security would return fire, killing you instantly.

  • Old news (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Hognoxious ( 631665 )

    The technology has been workable since the 1960s, but big oil ,.&*(
    no carrier

  • This technology is expected to be fully developed and commercially implemented in.... 20 years. I've been hearing that one for the past 40 years.
  • If the makers really were promising infinite energy, I think the rest of their math woudl need to be looked at again.

  • * - For some definition of works.

    All they've done is create the plasma. All that's left is the fusion part. Just the easy bit left I'm sure they're saying. /s

  • I'm afraid that this design, like nearly all modern fusion designs, relies on deuterium-tritium fusion. Both are awkward, expensive, and even dangerous to produce and refine. Tritium, in particular has a quite short half-life and is best refined from nuclear waste at fission plants. If you are already producing enough tritium to run fusion reactors, you already have more than enough fission plants to provide far more and far more reliable energy. There are numerous old papers laying out the difficulties, su

  • If there's a difference between "Star in a jar" and "Cold Fusion", then I cannot for the life of me tell what it would be. The summary very strangely doesn't clarify at all, instead simply to contrast SIAJ to Fission. If they're hoping we won't notice that this sounds exactly like cold fusion, they're going to be disappointed. The whole approach makes me think this is marketing-heavy rather than science-heavy, which bodes very poorly for their actual progress.

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