Success of Wendelstein 7-X nuclear reactor sparks hopes for fusion technology

Nicholas Kim

After nine years of research and development, a team of international scientists in Greifswald, Germany has succeeded in producing hydrogen plasma, a feat researchers claim is the first step toward hydrogen fusion. The testing involves injecting a small amount of hydrogen into a peanut-shaped device and electrifying it with energy equivalent to 6,000 microwave ovens. In doing so, scientists hope to successfully fuse two hydrogen atoms into a helium atom to garner energy in the process. The experiment, conducted on Feb. 3, marks a milestone for the quest to achieve nuclear fusion, according to the New York Times.

Scientists have postulated nuclear fusion, a process that joins atoms together at high temperatures to release energy, as a potential alternative to conventional forms of fuel such as coal. Though the reaction released hot gases known as plasma for only a fraction of a second, researchers working on the project have described the process as a success.

“The project is an exciting development in the effort to create an energy source that is carbon-free and provides a green and renewable energy source for generations to come,” said Juhyung Park (11), MUN member. “Once we can control nuclear fusion, many issues such as climate change or the danger of nuclear fission would be mitigated.”

According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, the two main paths to nuclear fusion involve the tokamak and stellarator models, two types of fusion machines that create plasma inside a vacuum chamber. Within the stellarator model, external coils create magnetic fields inside the chamber. In tokamaks, two sets of magnets drive current in the plasma through pulses instead of a continuous stream, creating magnetic fields. The Wendelstein 7-X test, according to ABC News, demonstrates advancement based on the stellarator model, and represents progress in the search for sustainable nuclear energy.

“Because nuclear energy creates a great deal of energy for a very small reactant, which is not true of traditional fossil fuels and solar energy, this definitely may be an opportunity for the future. I think people have to get over their hangover of nuclear energy. Because of events like Fukushima and Chernobyl, people don’t want to live next to a nuclear reactor,” said Khadijah Mumtaz, AP Chemistry teacher. “The government, or whoever creates the program, is going to have to spend a lot of time on education to help citizens understand that this is different from the past. Getting rid of this bad reputation for nuclear energy will take a considerable amount of time and effort.”

While testing continues, critics have pointed to the increasing costs of a technology that developers have conceded will be unavailable for several decades. According to CBS News, the investment for the Wendelstein 7-X reactor have exceeded €1 billion, or approximately $1.1 billion. To continue the project for six more years, cost estimates reach up to $16 billion.

“Ultimately, governments are going to have to strike a balance between scientific research and guaranteeing the welfare of their citizens,” Jeffrey Park (11) said. “I understand the frustration citizens may feel because of the opportunity cost and lack of money for other endeavors such as education, but research into nuclear fusion has to be emphasized because of its potential.”

By 2020, scientists hope the Wendelstein 7-X will test its full heating power of 20 megawatts and undergo discharges lasting 30 minutes. In doing so, they hope to advance the cause of nuclear fusion, and eventually set off a self-sustaining reaction.