One of the largest nuclear fusion devices in the world, called Wendelstein 7-X (W7-X), has been successfully fired for the first time by physicists in Germany.
The W7-X making 16 metres in width is called a stellarator. The scientists have achieved a great feat when switching it on as it is the first time such a machine has been proved to be able to produce and control plasma just like other fusion reactors.
The great potential of nuclear fusion to generate energy has kept scientists busy trying to find ways to put it to use, however challenging it might be. Furthermore, nuclear fusion is not only much safer but also does not result in radioactive waste (as is the issue with nuclear fission).
One of the main obstacles to scientists, though, is to build a machine that can produce and manage blobs of plasma at 100 million degrees Celcius for a sustained amount of time.
Other fusion reactors tried in the past could only maintain plasma for around 6 minutes – which is insufficient to generate energy. Fortunately (and, why the new research is such a big deal), the stellarator is expected to have the capacity of controlling plasma for 30 minutes at a time. For the first try, it was filled with helium that was brought to 1 million degrees Celcius with a laser. It was maintained for a fraction of a second – just enough to prove the machine actually works. As the lead researcher, Hans-Stephan Bosch, said in a statement, the team is very satisfied.
The next challenge will now be to extend the helium plasma discharges to 30 minutes. We are still a long way from it producing energy, but this first step is a huge one forward.