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On the Way to Fusion Power: Burning Plasmas, Mastering Energetic Particles and Taming Instabilities

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In a tokamak like the NSTX-U at Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, plasma particles are confined and shaped by magnetic field lines that act like an invisible bottle. (Image: PPPL, USA)

More than 100 scientists from around the world met in Shizuoka, Japan, last week to discuss the physics of energetic particles and instabilities in fusion plasmas – the state of matter in which nuclei fuse together releasing huge amount of energy – at the first joint meeting of experts from the two scientific disciplines.

The 16th IAEA Technical Meeting on Energetic Particles in Magnetic Confinement Systems – Theory of Plasma Instabilities confirmed the continuous progress being made in experimental energetic particles research, thanks to a much closer collaboration between experimentalists and theory model developers to achieve better predictive capabilities for future fusion power plants.

Understanding of confinement and transport properties of energetic particles in magnetically confined plasmas is an essential step to reaching the goal of fusion power generation. Energetic particles from fusion reactions play a crucial role for the performance of future fusion reactors by heating and sustaining the plasma, but they may also represent a source of free energy that can drive instabilities – fusion’s enemy number one!

Because of the importance of these topics, the IAEA has organized meetings on energetic particles (since 1989) and plasma instabilities (since 2002) in order to foster the exchange of scientific and technical results on the behaviour of energetic particles in future fusion reactor plasmas. The role of these forums has become increasingly important for the community since mega-scale facilities such as ITER – the international fusion reactor scale experiment – are under construction.

Burning Plasma

The short-term goal of the ongoing fusion R&D is to create and control a burning plasma – the point at which a plasma is primarily heated by the fusion-born energetic particles – which is a key requirement to net fusion power generation.

Although significant fusion power has been generated for short periods in the laboratory, a burning plasma has never been created, and this is exactly the raison d'être of the ITER Project. The performance of a fusion device is measured by Q, the ratio between the fusion power and the power used to heat the plasma. ITER is designed to give Q at least 10, and Q > 15 would be needed in a fusion power reactor.

“Advances in burning plasma-related science and technology will pave the way to practical fusion energy,” said Yasuhiko Takeiri, Director General of Japan’s National Institute for Fusion Science. “We have set energetic plasma physics as one of our top priority research areas,” he added.

ITER and next step reactors will operate in burning plasma conditions that cannot be comprehensively reproduced in present devices. Therefore, the meeting provided an opportunity to share the latest theoretical and computational physics results that can be used to predict the behaviour of fusion plasmas in ITER and future fusion power reactors, as well as help identify operational scenarios, and give guidance for the optimised design of such machines.

The conceptual design studies of a demonstration fusion power plant (DEMO) are under way in many countries and will be the subject of an IAEA DEMO Programme Workshop scheduled for October 2019.

Advantages of Fusion Power

Yasuhiko Takeiri, Director General of Japan’s National Institute for Fusion Science, welcomed the expert communities of energetic particles and plasma instabilities at the first joint meeting. (Photo: M. Barbarino/IAEA).

Realizing the potential of fusion energy for peaceful purposes remains one of the most daunting challenges that scientists and engineers are facing. At the same time, solving the fusion puzzle is becoming increasingly urgent, in fact providing the energy that enables continued growth, while limiting the severity of climate change by constraining the emissions of CO2 from fossil fuels, is needing early resolution for those countries planning major investment in new energy sources.

Nuclear fusion has several attractive characteristics:

  • the fuel (Deuterium from water and naturally found Lithium to produce Tritium) is abundant (lasting millions of years) and readily available around the world;
  • it would be an attractive and competitive source of electricity with a carbon-free footprint, a large baseload and with limited amounts of radioactive waste; and
  • the amount of fuel inside the reactor at any time is limited so in case of any interruptions or problems, the fusion process stops immediately.

Fusion - therefore - could have an important role to play in the attainment of the United Nations climate change targets and Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). To this end, the IAEA’s contribution in helping the international community with the achievement of SDG 7 (Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all) includes promoting international collaboration and facilitating the exchange of scientific and technical information toward advancing nuclear energy research and technology.

The role of nuclear power in combating climate change will be the subject of the upcoming International Conference on Climate Change and the Role of Nuclear Power.

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