Fusion in a can


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<!--intro-->Researchers at the Department of Energy's Los Alamos National Laboratory and the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory in Albuquerque, N.M., are investigating a way to create fusion energy in a cylinder roughly the size of a soda can. <!--/intro-->

Magnetized Target Fusion research shows the potential for producing smaller fusion energy sources at a cost that is far less than current approaches. Laboratory scientists presented the research at a recent American Physical Society Division of Plasma Physics meeting in Canada.

"The primary benefit of MTF is that it requires simpler, smaller and considerably less expensive experimental systems than either magnetic or inertial fusion," said Los Alamos' Glen Wurden, who leads one of the MTF teams. "It is a qualitatively different approach to fusion with the potential for truly low-cost development. This means that fusion experiments and testing facilities might conceivable be built that cost in the tens of million dollar range, rather than in the billion dollar range."

In a process roughly analogous to that of a diesel engine, which compresses fuel to a state where it burns more readily, MTF uses a magnetized fusion fuel in the form of an electrically neutral, high-temperature ionized gas ­ a plasma ­ that is pre-heated before being injected into a soda-can-sized aluminum cylinder.

The cylinder and its contents are then quickly compressed by driving a powerful electrical current through the wall of the cylinder. As the fast-moving solid metal wall compresses the fuel, it burns in a few millionths of a second at pressures that are millions of times greater than that of the Earth's atmosphere.

Within this mass of super-compressed, high-density plasma, scientists hope to produce tiny amounts of fusion energy -­ the same kind of energy that fuels the sun.

Fusion is a nuclear reaction combining, or fusing, the nuclei of light elements, such as helium, to form heavier elements. On the galactic scale, the fusion process in stars results in the release of huge amounts of energy. On Earth, fusion energy offers a potentially unlimited source of energy, but scientists have so far been unable to create fusion on a small, controllable basis. The MTF experiments could provide the basis for a technology that eventually could change that.

Much of the science behind MTF was developed at Los Alamos long before the current project began and some was perfected through recent collaborations on pulsed power energy between Los Alamos and Russian scientists. Several components of MTF technology have already been tested at Shiva Star, the Air Force's pulsed power facility in Albuquerque, but considerable research lies ahead for Los Alamos scientists as they develop methods to heat and handle the plasma needed for MTF.

MTF is a collaboration between Los Alamos, the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory and other laboratories with funding provided by the Department of Energy's Office of Fusion Energy Sciences.

For technical information on magnetized target fusion and fusion energy research at Los Alamos, see the <a HREF="http://fusionenergy.lanl.gov">Laboratory's website</a>.