Harnessing nuclear fusion, a nearly limitless source of energy - The “Fusion” program

Experts estimate that global electricity consumption will increase sixfold by the year 2100. This change is driven by various factors: the world’s growing population, improving living standards, and new digital technologies pushing the demand for energy ever higher. Nuclear fusion could help to satisfy this prospective global hunger for energy especially in the case of major cities and large industrial facilities, because this technology could deliver a continual supply of energy without extensive land use. At Helmholtz, researchers on the “Fusion” program are working to achieve this vision. They model their research on the sun, a ball of plasma made of hydrogen and in whose core hydrogen nuclei fuse to form helium. These nuclear fusion reactions produce the energy that lights and heats our planet – and which we use as “solar power.”

The experts on the “Fusion” program are working closely with international partners to lay the scientific and technological foundation for a fusion power plant. Two key projects in the field of international fusion research are the ITER and Wendelstein 7-X facilities, which are being used to investigate various approaches for the magnetic confinement of a fusion plasma.

Wendelstein 7-X went into operation in 2015 and is constructed according to the stellarator principle. It is currently the largest and most state-of-the-art stellarator in the world – the magnetic field “cage” confining the fusion plasma is produced solely by means of a system consisting of superconducting coils. Designed to discharge plasma for up to 30 minutes, Wendelstein 7-X is expected to demonstrate the capacity for continuous operation at relevant plasma parameters – a first in the history of fusion research.

ITER (Latin for “the way”) will function according to the tokamak principle and is currently under construction in Cadarache, France, as part of an international collaboration between the European Union, China, India, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and the US. In a tokamak, the fusion plasma is confined by a magnetic field, which, in contrast to a stellarator, is partially produced by an electric current flowing in the plasma. ITER aims to demonstrate for the first time that a fusion power plant is capable of generating significantly more energy than that introduced to heat the plasma and that it can do so for a longer period of time.

The German “Fusion” program and the European fusion program are also placing an increasing focus on the use of technical methods to exploit nuclear fusion for energy production. Fusion-based power plant concepts are being devised for this purpose, and the necessary fusion-specific (e.g., neutron-resistant) materials, technologies, and components are being developed at the scale required for a power plant.

Through our “Fusion” program, we are also involved in the ASDEX Upgrade (Axially Symmetric Divertor Experiment), which uses a tokamak approach. This facility is being used to explore key questions in the field of fusion research for ITER and for a demo power plant (DEMO).

Fusion research encompasses various fields of activity, including experimental, theoretical, and computational plasma physics, plasma-wall interaction – i.e., the influence the wall material has on the plasma, and how the material behaves under plasma load, the development of materials, innovative technologies and components, as well as the construction and operation of large-scale research infrastructure. A significant proportion of this fusion research is coordinated and co-funded by the European Union. Since 2014, the European fusion laboratories and a large number of associate partners have been part of the EUROfusion consortium, funded by the European Commission. This consortium is coordinated by the Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics (IPP), a scientific associated partner of Helmholtz and one of the Research Centers involved in the “Fusion” program. The contributions made by the participating Research Centers (Forschungszentrum Jülich, Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, and IPP) form around 30 percent of the European EUROfusion program.

Overview

  • With its “Fusion” program, Helmholtz aims to help harness nuclear fusion, a nearly inexhaustible source of energy.
  • The program’s goal is to establish the scientific and technological foundation for a fusion power plant. Two of its key projects are the ITERand Wendelstein 7-X facilities.
  • The interdisciplinary activities “plasma theory” and “fusion power plant” focus on core questions pertaining to the development of power plant concepts and create a framework for coordinating the four topics.

Topics

  • Stellarator research
  • Tokamak physics
  • Fusion technologies and materials
  • Plasma-wall interaction

Participating Helmholtz Centers

Forschungszentrum Jülich (FZJ)

Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT)

Scientific associated Center

Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics (IPP)

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