Strong magnetic force fields confine high-temperature ionized gas, called “plasma,” throughout the universe. At the surface of our sun, magnetized tubes of hot plasma, several millions of degrees, are launched with tremendous energy through the solar system. Around the earth, the strong magnetic field that we measure with a compass extends tens of thousands of kilometers into space and forms a protective atmosphere of ionized matter called the “magnetosphere.”
Scientists have been studying how strong magnetic fields confine high-temperature matter since the dawn of the Space Age. Today, a grand challenge of applied physics is to use our know-how of plasma physics to achieve one of the world’s most important technical goals: a source of energy that is clean, safe, and available for thousands of years.
Fusion energy is the most promising source of energy meeting these requirements. Fusion uses the heavy isotope of hydrogen, called deuterium, to form helium and release huge amounts of energy. Every bottle of water contains enough deuterium to generate the equivalent of a barrel of oil when used in a fusion power source. But a major challenge remains: deuterium must first be heated to the temperature of the stars before fusion energy can be released.
My interests are building experiments that test whether or not the magnetic fields used to confine high-temperature plasma at the surfaces of stars or in planetary magnetospheres can be used in the laboratory to produce the conditions that will make fusion energy work. Together with my colleagues, the experiments I've built have achieved temperatures of more than 100 million degrees and demonstrated numerous techniques for magnetic confinement.
Much more work is needed. We still need to explore how the shape of the magnetic force fields allows the hot plasma to be confined and heated; how the plasma mixes and swirls within the containment vessels; and how sophisticated high-speed control systems maintain the perfect symmetry required to maximize fusion power output.
Reporting this Quest for Star Power will the the goal of this blog.