Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


Levitating magnet may yield new approach to clean energy

A new experiment that reproduces the magnetic fields of the Earth and other planets has yielded its first significant results. The findings confirm that its unique approach has some potential to be developed as a new way of creating a power-producing plant based on nuclear fusion — the process that generates the sun's prodigious output of energy.

Fusion has been a cherished goal of physicists and energy researchers for more than 50 years. That's because it offers the possibility of nearly endless supplies of energy with no carbon emissions and far less radioactive waste than that produced by today's nuclear plants, which are based on fission, the splitting of atoms (the opposite of fusion, which involves fusing two atoms together). But developing a fusion reactor that produces a net output of energy has proved to be more challenging than initially thought.

The new results come from an experimental device on the MIT campus, inspired by observations from space made by satellites. Called the Levitated Dipole Experiment, or LDX, a joint project of MIT and Columbia University, it uses a half-ton donut-shaped magnet about the size and shape of a large truck tire, made of superconducting wire coiled inside a stainless steel vessel. This magnet is suspended by a powerful electromagnetic field, and is used to control the motion of the 10-million-degree-hot electrically charged gas, or plasma, contained within its 16-foot-diameter outer chamber.

The results, published this week in the journal Nature Physics, confirm the counter-intuitive prediction that inside the device's magnetic chamber, random turbulence causes the plasma to become more densely concentrated — a crucial step to getting atoms to fuse together — instead of becoming more spread out, as usually happens with turbulence. This "turbulent pinching" of the plasma has been observed in the way plasmas in space interact with the Earth's and Jupiter's magnetic fields, but has never before been recreated in the laboratory.

Most experiments in fusion around the world use one of two methods: tokamaks, which use a collection of coiled magnets surrounding a donut-shaped chamber to confine the plasma, or inertial fusion, using high-powered lasers to blast a tiny pellet of fuel at the device's center. But LDX takes a different approach. "It's the first experiment of its kind," says MIT senior scientist Jay Kesner, MIT's physics research group leader for LDX, who co-directs the project with Michael E. Mauel, professor of applied physics at Columbia University's Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science.

The results of the experiment show that this approach "could produce an alternative path to fusion," Kesner says, though more research will be needed to determine whether it would be practical. For example, though the researchers have measured the plasma's high density, new equipment still needs to be installed to measure its temperature, and ultimately a much larger version would have to be built and tested.

Kesner cautions that the kind of fuel cycle planned for other types of fusion reactors such as tokamaks, which use a mixture of two forms of "heavy" hydrogen called deuterium and tritium, should be easier to achieve and will likely be the first to go into operation. The deuterium-deuterium fusion planned for devices based on the LDX design, if they ever become practical, would likely make this "a second-generation approach," he says.

When operating, the huge LDX magnet is supported by the magnetic field from an electromagnet overhead, which is controlled continuously by a computer based on precision monitoring of its position using eight laser beams and detectors. The position of the half-ton magnet, which carries a current of one million amperes (compared to a typical home's total capacity of 200 amperes) can be maintained this way to within half a millimeter. A cone-shaped support with springs is positioned under the magnet to catch it safely if anything goes wrong with the control system.

Levitation is crucial because the magnetic field used to confine the plasma would be disturbed by any objects in its way, such as any supports used to hold the magnet in place. In the experimental runs, they recreated the same conditions with and without the support system in place, and confirmed that the confinement of the plasma was dramatically increased in the levitated mode, with the supports removed. With the magnet levitated, the central peak of plasma density developed within a few hundredths of a second, and closely resembled those observed in planetary magnetospheres (such as the magnetic fields surrounding Earth and Jupiter).

Summarizing the difference between the two approaches, Kesner explains that in a tokamak, the hot plasma is confined inside a huge magnet, but in the LDX the magnet is inside the plasma. The whole concept, he says, was inspired by observations of planetary magnetospheres made by interplanetary spacecraft. In turn, he says, for planetary research the experiments in LDX can yield "a lot more subtle detail than you can get by launching satellites, and more cheaply."

The MIT and Columbia scientists say that if the turbulence-induced density enhancement exhibited by the LDX could be scaled up to larger devices, it might enable them to recreate the conditions necessary to sustain fusion reactions, and thus may point the way toward abundant and sustainable production of fusion energy.

"Fusion energy could provide a long-term solution to the planet's energy needs without contributing to global warming," says Columbia's Mauel.

The LDX project, led by Mauel and Kesner and funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, has been through more than 10 years of design, construction and testing, and produced its first experimental results in its levitated configuration last year, which are being reported in the analysis published this week. Dr. Darren Garnier of Columbia University, who directs LDX experimental operations, last month received the Rose Award for Excellence in Fusion Engineering for his work on LDX. A newly installed microwave interferometer array, developed by MIT graduate student Alex Boxer PhD '09, was used to make the precision measurements of the plasma concentrations that were used to observe the turbulent pinch.

"LDX is one of the most novel fusion plasma physics experiments underway today," says Stewart Prager, director of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory. Because of the unique geometry of the system, he says, "theoretical predictions indicate that the confinement of energy might be very favorable" for producing practical fusion power, but the theory needs to be confirmed in practice. "For these benefits to be realized, the somewhat bold theoretical predictions must be realized experimentally," he says.

Jennifer Hirsch | EurekAlert!
Further information:

More articles from Physics and Astronomy:

nachricht Climate cycles may explain how running water carved Mars' surface features
02.12.2016 | Penn State

nachricht What do Netflix, Google and planetary systems have in common?
02.12.2016 | University of Toronto

All articles from Physics and Astronomy >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Novel silicon etching technique crafts 3-D gradient refractive index micro-optics

A multi-institutional research collaboration has created a novel approach for fabricating three-dimensional micro-optics through the shape-defined formation of porous silicon (PSi), with broad impacts in integrated optoelectronics, imaging, and photovoltaics.

Working with colleagues at Stanford and The Dow Chemical Company, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign fabricated 3-D birefringent...

Im Focus: Quantum Particles Form Droplets

In experiments with magnetic atoms conducted at extremely low temperatures, scientists have demonstrated a unique phase of matter: The atoms form a new type of quantum liquid or quantum droplet state. These so called quantum droplets may preserve their form in absence of external confinement because of quantum effects. The joint team of experimental physicists from Innsbruck and theoretical physicists from Hannover report on their findings in the journal Physical Review X.

“Our Quantum droplets are in the gas phase but they still drop like a rock,” explains experimental physicist Francesca Ferlaino when talking about the...

Im Focus: MADMAX: Max Planck Institute for Physics takes up axion research

The Max Planck Institute for Physics (MPP) is opening up a new research field. A workshop from November 21 - 22, 2016 will mark the start of activities for an innovative axion experiment. Axions are still only purely hypothetical particles. Their detection could solve two fundamental problems in particle physics: What dark matter consists of and why it has not yet been possible to directly observe a CP violation for the strong interaction.

The “MADMAX” project is the MPP’s commitment to axion research. Axions are so far only a theoretical prediction and are difficult to detect: on the one hand,...

Im Focus: Molecules change shape when wet

Broadband rotational spectroscopy unravels structural reshaping of isolated molecules in the gas phase to accommodate water

In two recent publications in the Journal of Chemical Physics and in the Journal of Physical Chemistry Letters, researchers around Melanie Schnell from the Max...

Im Focus: Fraunhofer ISE Develops Highly Compact, High Frequency DC/DC Converter for Aviation

The efficiency of power electronic systems is not solely dependent on electrical efficiency but also on weight, for example, in mobile systems. When the weight of relevant components and devices in airplanes, for instance, is reduced, fuel savings can be achieved and correspondingly greenhouse gas emissions decreased. New materials and components based on gallium nitride (GaN) can help to reduce weight and increase the efficiency. With these new materials, power electronic switches can be operated at higher switching frequency, resulting in higher power density and lower material costs.

Researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems ISE together with partners have investigated how these materials can be used to make power...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Event News

ICTM Conference 2017: Production technology for turbomachine manufacturing of the future

16.11.2016 | Event News

Innovation Day Laser Technology – Laser Additive Manufacturing

01.11.2016 | Event News

#IC2S2: When Social Science meets Computer Science - GESIS will host the IC2S2 conference 2017

14.10.2016 | Event News

Latest News

UTSA study describes new minimally invasive device to treat cancer and other illnesses

02.12.2016 | Medical Engineering

Plasma-zapping process could yield trans fat-free soybean oil product

02.12.2016 | Agricultural and Forestry Science

What do Netflix, Google and planetary systems have in common?

02.12.2016 | Physics and Astronomy

More VideoLinks >>>