Canned heat

Researchers at the US Department of Energy’s Los Alamos National Laboratory and the US Air Force Research Laboratory, are investigating a way to create fusion energy in a cylinder roughly the size of a drinks can.

Magnetised Target Fusion research has shown the potential for producing smaller fusion energy sources at a cost believed to be far less than current approaches.

‘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 comparable to that of a diesel engine, which compresses fuel to a state where it burns more readily, MTF uses a magnetised fusion fuel in the form of an electrically neutral, high-temperature ionised gas that is pre-heated before being injected into a can-sized aluminium cylinder.

The cylinder and its contents are then 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.

Fusion is a nuclear reaction combining the nuclei of light elements 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 US Air Force’s pulsed power facility, but considerable research lies ahead for Los Alamos scientists as they develop methods to heat and handle the plasma needed for MTF.

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