Magnetic confinement fusion is an approach to generating fusion power that uses magnetic fields (which is a magnetic influence of electric currents and magnetic materials) to confine the hot fusion fuel in the form of a plasma. Magnetic confinement is one of two major branches of fusion energy research, the other being inertial confinement fusion. The magnetic approach is more highly developed and is usually considered more promising for energy production. Construction of a 500-MW heat generating fusion plant using tokamak magnetic confinement geometry, the ITER, began in France in 2007.
Fusion reactions combine light atomic nuclei such as hydrogen to form heavier ones such as helium. In order to overcome the electrostatic repulsion between them, the nuclei must have a temperature of several tens of millions of degrees, under which conditions they no longer form neutral atoms but exist in the plasma state. In addition, sufficient density and energy confinement are required, as specified by the Lawson criterion.
Magnetic confinement fusion attempts to create the conditions needed for fusion energy production by using the electrical conductivity of the plasma to contain it with magnetic fields. The basic concept can be thought of in a fluid picture as a balance between magnetic pressure and plasma pressure, or in terms of individual particles spiraling along magnetic field lines.
The pressure achievable is usually on the order of one bar with a confinement time up to a few seconds. In contrast, inertial confinement has a much higher pressure but a much lower confinement time. Most magnetic confinement schemes also have the advantage of being more or less steady state, as opposed to the inherently pulsed operation of inertial confinement.
The simplest magnetic configuration is a solenoid, a long cylinder wound with magnetic coils producing a field with the lines of force running parallel to the axis of the cylinder. Such a field would hinder ions and electrons from being lost radially, but not from being lost from the ends of the solenoid.
There are two approaches to solving this problem. One is to try to stop up the ends with a magnetic mirror, the other is to eliminate the ends altogether by bending the field lines around to close on themselves. A simple toroidal field, however, provides poor confinement because the radial gradient of the field strength results in a drift in the direction of the axis.
A major area of research in the early years of fusion energy research was the magnetic mirror. Most early mirror devices attempted to confine plasma near the focus of a non-planar magnetic field, or to be more precise, two such mirrors located close to each other and oriented at right angles. In order to escape the confinement area, nuclei had to enter a small annular area near each magnet. It was known that nuclei would escape through this area, but by adding and heating fuel continually it was felt this could be overcome. As development of mirror systems progressed, additional sets of magnets were added to either side, meaning that the nuclei had to escape through two such areas before leaving the reaction area entirely. A highly developed form, the Mirror Fusion Test Facility (MFTF), used two mirrors at either end of a solenoid to increase the internal volume of the reaction area.
An early attempt to build a magnetic confinement system was the stellarator, introduced by Lyman Spitzer in 1951. Essentially the stellarator consists of a torus that has been cut in half and then attached back together with straight "crossover" sections to form a figure-8. This has the effect of propagating the nuclei from the inside to outside as it orbits the device, thereby canceling out the drift across the axis, at least if the nuclei orbit fast enough. Newer versions of the stellarator design have replaced the "mechanical" drift cancellation with additional magnets that "wind" the field lines into a helix to cause the same effect.
In 1968 Russian research on the toroidal tokamak was first presented in public, with results that far outstripped existing efforts from any competing design, magnetic or not. Since then the majority of effort in magnetic confinement has been based on the tokamak principle. In the tokamak a current is periodically driven through the plasma itself, creating a field "around" the torus that combines with the toroidal field to produce a winding field in some ways similar to that in a modern stellarator, at least in that nuclei move from the inside to the outside of the device as they flow around it.
In 1991, START was built at Culham, UK, as the first purpose built spherical tokamak. This was essentially a spheromak with an inserted central rod. START produced impressive results, with β values at approximately 40% - three times that produced by standard tokamaks at the time. The concept has been scaled up to higher plasma currents and larger sizes, with the experiments NSTX (US), MAST (UK) and Globus-M (Russia) currently running. Spherical tokamaks have improved stability properties compared to conventional tokamaks and as such the area is receiving considerable experimental attention. However spherical tokamaks to date have been at low toroidal field and as such are impractical for fusion neutron devices.
Compact toroids, e.g. the spheromak and the Field-Reversed Configuration, attempt to combine the good confinement of closed magnetic surfaces configurations with the simplicity of machines without a central core. An early experiment of this type[dubious ] in the 1970s was Trisops. (Trisops fired two theta-pinch rings towards each other.)
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All of these devices have faced considerable problems being scaled up and in their approach toward the Lawson criterion. One researcher has described the magnetic confinement problem in simple terms, likening it to squeezing a balloon – the air will always attempt to "pop out" somewhere else. Turbulence in the plasma has proven to be a major problem, causing the plasma to escape the confinement area, and potentially touch the walls of the container. If this happens, a process known as "sputtering", high-mass particles from the container (often steel and other metals) are mixed into the fusion fuel, lowering its temperature.
In 1997, scientists at the Joint European Torus (JET) facilities in the UK produced 16 megawatts of fusion power. Scientists can now exercise a measure of control over plasma turbulence and resultant energy leakage, long considered an unavoidable and intractable feature of plasmas. There is increased optimism that the plasma pressure above which the plasma disassembles can now be made large enough to sustain a fusion reaction rate acceptable for a power plant. Electromagnetic waves can be injected and steered to manipulate the paths of plasma particles and then to produce the large electrical currents necessary to produce the magnetic fields to confine the plasma. These and other control capabilities have come from advances in basic understanding of plasma science in such areas as plasma turbulence, plasma macroscopic stability, and plasma wave propagation. Much of this progress has been achieved with a particular emphasis on the tokamak.