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 Peering inside an artificial sun

This story is from the category Computing Power
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Date posted: 31/01/2010

After more than five decades of research, a major milestone toward the harnessing of fusion power is expected within the next year or two. This milestone, known as "fusion ignition," should take place at an experimental facility built for that purpose in California. Known as the National Ignition Facility, or NIF, it started initial experiments last fall.

Researchers at MIT?s Plasma Science and Fusion Center (PSFC) have played an important part in making this pivotal event possible, and that role is outlined this week in a paper published in the journal Science. In a nutshell, they?ve figured out how to use a second fusion reaction as a kind of backlight, allowing them to see the details of what?s happening inside the primary reaction.

Fusion, the merging of two small atoms into one with a prodigious release of energy, is the process that powers the sun, and is seen as a potential long-term solution to the world?s energy needs because in principle it could supply vast amounts of energy without any greenhouse gas emissions. But the practical harnessing of this powerhouse is thought to remain decades away.

Achieving ignition would represent an important and long-sought step in that direction. One problem for the researchers and engineers trying to make it happen, though, is that the actual reactions would be taking place inside a 2-mm diameter fuel capsule whose temperature and pressure, as it implodes to 1/40 its initial diameter, become much greater than those at the very center of the sun. That?s not an easy environment for taking pictures, or any kind of measurements, in order to fine-tune the system to achieve the desired results.

An MIT team led by PSFC Senior Research Scientist Richard Petrasso developed the fusion backlighting method, which was described in a paper in Science in 2008. Now, the team is reporting in Science that they successfully used the method in a test facility at the University of Rochester, and were indeed able to learn important details about the nature of the electric and magnetic fields in and around this tiny capsule.

With the system they devised, ?we?re taking a snapshot of what these electric and magnetic fields look like,? Petrasso says. ?This is information is very difficult if not impossible to obtain any other way.?

See the full Story via external site: www.physorg.com

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