Fusion energy is the holy grail of sustainable power generation. The research fusion reactor in Garching by Munich is one of the field’s most exciting and promising projects. The Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics (IPP) has been working on the project for several years, and the results so far are nothing short of amazing.
Since I read for the first time about fusion energy which must have been about the end of the 80ies, so 45 years now, I have been deeply fascinated by this technology. It is a no-brainer that it is part of the great list of human achievements: fire, wheels, books, steam energy, transistors, rockets, and fission energy. It is definitely a stepstone towards an FTL drive 😉
Since then, fusion energy seems to have been 50 years away from general commercial availability. Christoph, the researcher and our tour guide for that visit, told me: yes, Kurt, that is the Fusion Constant. We are working on it 😉
So right now, I can not imagine a more noble and valuable task than building a spaceship or a fusion reactor (with Q > 1, of course). Assembling a spaceship WITH a fusion reactor is unfathomable beyond greatness 🙂
Fusion energy is created by combining atomic nuclei to form heavier elements, releasing vast amounts of energy in the process, the same process that powers the sun. If harnessed on Earth, fusion energy could provide us with an almost limitless source of clean and sustainable energy, with no greenhouse gas emissions, no risk of meltdown, and no long-lived radioactive waste.
Considering the green aspect, fusion energy is many orders of magnitude superior, as it provides a significant energy density. Solar and wind energy require an insane amount of space. It is a dead-end road if there is no easy way to make it in the Sahara desert and distribute it worldwide, especially considering the incredible amount of dirty mining for the required material.
Read more about energy here in Energy and Civilization: A History; Vaclav Smil, 2018.
The research fusion reactor in Garching by Munich, the ASDEX-Upgrade, is a Tokamak fusion reactor. Tokamaks are, by design, pulsing and not continuous. The Munich reactor also uses old-school coils (non-supra conducting), requiring insane amounts of energy. To solve this, energy for the experiments is stored upfront in massive flywheels (4 flywheels with up to 223 t in the energy centre). 400 MW are needed for 10 s plasma pulse = ½ power consumption of the Munich area. At peak capacity, the outer surface of those metal flywheels rotates at nearly the speed of sound (1650 грm). Isn’t this crazy, extraordinary engineering?
The other German reactor, the Wendelstein 7-X (W7-X), is a type of fusion device called a stellarator. Besides tokamaks, the W7-X is designed to produce and contain a hot and dense plasma to sustain fusion reactions. The plasma is confined using powerful magnetic fields that keep it away from the reactor’s walls, preventing it from cooling down and losing energy.
Christoph showed us the shape of the stellarator during the presentation, and my question was: “is this shape now A shape or the optimal shape.” I am proud to be able to ask meaningful non-trivial questions to a plasma physicist. I mean, I am just an Enterprise Transformation Implementer, which is far inferior in my ranking of relevance! 😉
The answer is: It is the optimal shape for neo-classic losses. However, it does not consider the complex plasma turbulences that occur, and precisely this is his Ph.D. research topic – awesome! Read here more on the plasma turbulences that are being researched right now – more in this clip by Hartmut Zohm here.
Another fascinating fact is that the Stellarator idea is even older than the Tokamak (learned from Christoph). It just required supercomputers from the 90ies to be able to calculate the shape. It exerts on me an almost religious shudder of worship of such physical problems. Well, technology is my religion. It is what I believe in.
The W7-X is the world’s largest and most advanced stellarator, with a complex three-dimensional magnetic field that can be adjusted in real-time to optimize plasma performance. The machine is cooled to almost absolute zero using liquid helium, and the plasma is heated to temperatures exceeding 100 million degrees Celsius using powerful microwaves.
The W7-X project is a collaborative effort involving researchers from Germany, the US, Japan, and other countries. The ultimate goal is to demonstrate the feasibility of fusion energy as a power source and to develop the technologies needed to build a commercial fusion power plant.
While the W7-X is still in the research phase, the results have been auspicious. In 2016, the team successfully created and sustained a plasma for more than one minute, a significant milestone in the field. Since then, the team has been refining the machine and conducting more experiments to further understand the properties of the plasma and how it can be optimized for fusion energy production.
The research fusion reactor in Garching by Munich is a shining example of the power of science and technology to solve some of the world’s most pressing problems. Fusion energy has the potential to revolutionize the way we generate power, and the Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics is leading the way in making that vision a reality.
It was by far the best Meetup I have ever had so far. Thanx to Marc for organizing this.