By Briana Vannozzi
Inside a metal spheroid covered with beams and high-tech magnets, scientists are hoping to achieve something that sounds impossible. Create a star on Earth, essentially in a bottle.
“We are starting a new experiment its called NSTX-U — the National Spherical Torus Upgrade — and it’s going to push us ever closer to the scientific regime in which we can generate fusion power,” said Stewart Prager, director of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory.
We got a sneak peek on a tour at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory. Simply put, fusion energy is the process that powers the sun and stars through a collision of ions, which creates plasma. This experiment will study changes to how fusion happens.
“One takes a plasma, heats it to 100 million degrees and bends it into the shape of a doughnut so it’s like a star in the shape of a doughnut. What we’re studying here is like the shape of an apple with the core taken out so it’s more compact and that means that the steps toward fusion could be faster and somewhat less expensive,” Prager said.
It took four years and $94 million to build this upgrade. The experiment originally began 15 years ago. The magnets here are 20 thousand times stronger than the Earth’s magnetic field. This facility is the most powerful of its kind on Earth. There are only 10 major fusion machines around the world.
“We think fusion could be a very important energy source for the future so we want to use the energy that comes out of these fusion reactions much like comes out of the sun to convert heat to electricity,” said Jonathan Menard, program director for NSTX-U.
“It is clean and green, no contribution to greenhouse gases, it will be essentially inexhaustible, it is safe and it should be available to all nations,” Prager said.
But that reality is still decades away. Building a fusion plant is expensive and complicated. Funding for the NSTX-U and the lab comes from the U.S. Department of Energy.
“We must support across the board the portfolio of technologies that can lead us to that deep electricity de-carbonization,” said U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz.
“A breakthrough in this space will deal with the challenges we have with global warming with the carbon being spewed into our air with suffering of populations with the challenges of our state with acidification of our oceans,” said Sen. Cory Booker.
A coalition of 20 countries, the U.S. included, is committed to doubling the energy technology innovation budget over the next five years. That’s good news for researchers, whose work can often take a lifetime to see tangible results and ensures the possibilities that their work will get a seat at the table.