Scientists use rare metal to set new record in effort to produce limitless energy: ‘It was a pretty remarkable result’

May 21, 2024 | by

Nuclear fusion just got a huge boost from an innovative source — tungsten.

In a landmark achievement, scientists in France sustained a fusion reaction for a record-breaking six minutes while injecting over a billion joules of energy. This brings us one major step closer to clean, abundant energy that can transform our world, according to Interesting Engineering.

The breakthrough happened at a donut-shaped reactor called a tokamak. By heating hydrogen to a scorching 50 million degrees Celsius (about 90 million degrees Fahrenheit), researchers created a super-hot plasma under conditions similar to what powers the sun.

The goal is to get way more energy out than what’s put in — the key to making fusion a viable power source.

Princeton Plasma Physics Lab researcher Tullio Barbui said, per Interesting Engineering: “During the six-minute shot, we were able to measure quite nicely the central electron temperature. It was in a very steady state of around 4 kilovolts. It was a pretty remarkable result.”

What’s the secret ingredient in this record-setting reaction? The rare metal tungsten. Most tokamaks use graphite inner walls, but tungsten could be the magic bullet for larger, more efficient reactors. It doesn’t retain any fuel, allowing the plasma to stay hotter and denser — perfect conditions for cranking out massive amounts of energy.

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For everyday folks, this could eventually mean a future with cheaper, cleaner, virtually limitless electricity. Fusion power plants could one day provide always-on, carbon-free energy with no planet-heating pollution. That’s a huge win for both our wallets and our environment.

“This is, simply, the difference between trying to grab your kitten at home versus trying to pet the wildest lion,” said Luis Delgado-Aparicio, a lead scientist at Princeton Plasma Physics Lab, on the challenge of working with tungsten versus graphite.

But those crazy kittens — er, particles — are starting to fall in line, according to Xavier Litaudon, a researcher at the French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission.

“Thanks to these new measurements, we will have the ability to measure the tungsten inside the plasma and to understand the transport of tungsten from the wall to the core of the plasma,” he said.

In other words, we’re getting a handle on this white-hot fusion cookie, one crunchy tungsten bite at a time. And that’s something we can all get fired up about.

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