$310 Million Wendelstein 7-X Fusion Experiment Advancing on Schedule

Thirteen of the 70 superconducting coils for the $310 million Wendelstein 7-X stellarator-type fusion experiment have been tested at low temperatures and delivered, and the 41 additional coils specified are in various stages of manufacturing.  When complete, sometime in 2010, Wendelstein 7-X will be the largest stellarator fusion device built to date, and will test the suitability of a stellarator design for power plants.  

Both tokamak and stellarator types of fusion reactors utilize a ring-shaped magnetic field generated by massive superconducting magnets to suspend the ultra-high temperature plasma needed for fusion reactions within a containment vessel.  The difference between the two is that tokamaks produce part of the field by an electric current flowing through the plasma, while stellarators rely on external coils to provide the field.  Although tokamaks have been the subject of more investigation, the stellarator design more easily allows for longer pulses of operation – for Wendelstein, possibly up to thirty minutes.  

Researchers hope Wendelstein 7-X will bring them closer to the ultimate goal of continuous operation fusion reactions that can be harnessed for electric power generation.  The European Union, the Federal Republic of Germany, and the State of Mecklenbourg-Western Pommerania are funding the project.

For the many who have heard of fusion energy, but either dismissed it as a fairy tale, or avoided thinking about it altogether due to the sheer complexity of prospective fusion technologies, the Wendelstein 7-X demonstrates that at least on a global level, the effort to make fusion a reality is serious.  

While nobody expects fusion to solve today’s energy problems within the next few decades, even critics of the fundamental technological feasibility of fusion admit that the basic science, technology development, and industrialization of the core technologies behind fusion are key to the long term advancement of society.  

Many industrialized nations in Europe and Asia have serious fusion programs, and emerging economic forces such as China and India are increasingly aggressive in their scientific collaboration, internal and international research & development projects, and political and financial support.  

Fusion research in the U.S. is more uncertain.  We are on a clear path to full participation in the massive $10 billion International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER).  However, while support for ITER–which is being hosted in Europe and included participants in several nations–is fairly strong, budgetary constraints and political shortsightedness have jeopardized domestic fusion research.  

Mark Bitterman, Executive Editor, Superconductor Week

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