Most of the methods we currently use to produce power come with substantial drawbacks such as pollution or limited availability. Reliable fusion power could theoretically change all that. By harnessing the power of the sun, we could safely produce more power than ever before. The problem, however, is that fusion power generation doesn’t work yet. A team from South Korea just made a major advancement — the Korea Superconducting Tokamak Advanced Research (KSTAR) device recently ran for 20 seconds. That might not sound impressive, but it doubles the previous record.
The sun and other stars produce energy through nuclear fusion — the process of sticking together two hydrogen atoms (and later heavier atoms) yields enormous energy, and the byproducts are entirely safe, unlike the leftovers from nuclear fission and combustion. However, fusion only takes place at extremely high temperatures and pressures. It’s not a self-sustaining chain reaction like fission.
KSTAR is one of the most advanced Tokamak-style reactors in the world. These devices use powerful magnetic fields to shape super-heated plasma into a torus (ring) shape. Currently, our ability to sustain artificial fusion reactions in this way is extremely limited. The best experimental reactors like KSTAR can only keep super-heated plasma active for a few seconds. The number of seconds is finally increasing, though.
KSTAR recently maintained fusion plasma at 180 million degrees Fahrenheit for 20 seconds. This device’s previous record was just eight seconds in 2019, and the global record before this experiment was a mere 10 seconds at 100 million degrees or higher. The longer plasma remains active in the reactor the more likely the atoms will undergo fusion and produce usable amounts of energy. That’s the goal, but current fusion reactors like KSTAR consume more power than they produce. The record holder in that arena is the Joint European Torus (JET), which can produce 16MW of power from 24MW of input power.
The team says an improved Internal Transport Barrier (ITB) performance was the key to this most recent improvement. An ITB reduces the movement of ions inside the plasma, leading to improved plasma confinement and stability. Thus, the KSTAR reactor was able to smash the previous record.
We’re still a long way from making fusion a viable source of energy. For now, the KSTAR team hopes to continue improving its reactor stability, eventually scaling to 300 seconds of continuous operation by 2025.
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