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The research team, headed by electrical and computer engineering Professor David Anderson and research assistant John Canik, recently proved that the Helically Symmetric eXperiment (HSX), an odd-looking magnetic plasma chamber called a stellarator, can overcome a major barrier in plasma research, in which stellarators lose too much energy to reach the high temperatures needed for fusion.
Published in a recent issue of Physical Review Letters, the new results show that the unique design of the HSX in fact loses less energy, meaning that fusion in this type of stellarator could be possible.
Plasma is very hot, ionized gas that can conduct electricity - essentially, it's what stars are made of. If heated to the point of ignition, hydrogen ions could fuse into helium, the same reaction that powers the sun. This fusion could be a clean, sustainable and limitless energy source.
These results excited and relieved the researchers who have spent years working on the project. "We all thought the machine would do what it's turning out to do, but there are a million reasons why it might not: the theory might be wrong, (or) we might have built it badly," says Anderson. "But everything is panning out and supporting the fact that the ideas on which it was based were correct, and really points the way of the future for the stellarator."
The next step for the project is to establish how much symmetry in the coils is necessary to achieve low transport rates. They hope to make the coils easier to engineer, with the mindset that the principles used in the HSX could someday be incorporated into fusion generators, the reason that Anderson and his team began designing the HSX 17 years ago.
"It's an exciting field. It's something where one can contribute positively to mankind with an energy source that's completely sustainable, doesn't involve nuclear proliferation or radioactive waste, with a limitless fuel supply," says Anderson. "Plus, the machines look cool."