MIT physics professor Bruno Coppi will be the principal investigator for a new fusion reactor that could become the first such reactor to achieve ignition, the point where a fusion reaction becomes self-sustaining instead of requiring a constant input of energy.  Coppi originated the design.  Now it’s time for some “brain drain” from the U.S.

Russia and Italy have entered into an agreement to build a new fusion reactor outside Moscow.  Called the ‘Ignitor’ fusion reactor, the core will be built in Italy and external housing built outside Moscow, where all will be installed.

The concept for the new reactor builds on decades of experience with MIT’s Alcator fusion research program, also initiated by Coppi, which in its present version called Alcator C-Mod, has the highest magnetic field and highest plasma pressure the two of the most important measures of performance in magnetic fusion of any fusion reactor, and is the largest university-based fusion reactor in the world.

Ignitor Fusion Reactor Cutaway View. Click image for more info.

Ignitor would be about twice the size of Alcator C-Mod, with a main donut-shaped chamber 1.3 meters across, and have an even stronger magnetic field. It will be much smaller and less expensive than the major international fusion project ITER with a chamber 6.2 meters across, currently under construction in France. Though originally designed to achieve ignition, the ITER reactor has been scaled back and is now not expected to reach that milestone.

Ignitor Fusion Reactor Exterior View. Click image for more info.

Coppi says the Ignitor reactor will be “a very compact, inexpensive type of machine,” and unlike the larger ITER could be ready to begin operations within a few years. Its design is based on a particularly effective combination of factors that researchers unexpectedly discovered during the many years of running the Alcator program, and that were later confirmed in experiments at other reactors.

Coppi explains that together, these factors produce especially good confinement of the plasma and a high degree of purity.  Impurities in the hot gases can be a major source of inefficiency. The new Ignitor design aims to preserve these features to produce the highest plasma current densities – the amount of electric current in a given area of plasma. The design also has additional structures needed to produce and confine burning fusion plasmas in order to create the conditions needed for ignition.

The key ingredient in plasma fusion experiments, is the hot plasma ‘gas’ made up of charged particles such as atomic nuclei and electrons. In plasma fusion reactors, atomic nuclei – usually of isotopes of hydrogen called deuterium and tritium – are forced together through a combination of heat and pressure to overcome their natural electrostatic repulsion. When the nuclei join together, or fuse, they release prodigious amounts of energy.

The initial impetus for setting up the Alcator reactor in the 1970s had more to do with pure science: “It was set up to simulate the X-ray stars that we knew at that time,” says Coppi, whose research work has as much to do with astrophysics as with energy. Stars are themselves made of plasma and powered by fusion, and the only way to study their atomic-level behavior in detail is through experiments inside fusion reactors.

Once the reactor was in operation, he says, “we found we were producing plasmas with unusual properties,” and realized this might represent a path to the long-sought goal of fusion ignition.

Roscoe White, a distinguished research fellow at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, explains, “the whole point of Ignitor is to find out how a burning plasma behaves, and there could be pleasant or unpleasant results coming from it. Whatever is learned is a gain.  Nobody knows exactly how it will perform, that is the point of the experiment.” But while its exact results are unknown, White says it is important to pursue this project in addition to other approaches to fusion. “With our present knowledge it is very risky to commit the program to a single track reactor development – our knowledge is still in flux.”

Additionally White says, “the completion of ITER, the only currently projected burning plasma experiment, is decades off. Experimental data concerning a burning plasma would be very welcome, and could lead to important results helping the cause of practical fusion power.” Furthermore, the Ignitor approach, if all goes well, could lead to more compact and economical future reactors: Some recent results from existing reactors, plus new information to be gained from Ignitor, “could lead to reactor designs much smaller and simpler than ITER.”

Coppi remains especially interested in the potential of the new reactor to make new discoveries about fundamental physics. Quoting the late MIT physicist and Institute Professor Bruno Rossi, Coppi says, “whenever you do experiments in an unknown regime, you will find something new.” The new machine’s findings, he suggests, “will have a strong impact on astrophysics.”

Coppi plans to work with the Italian ministry of research and Evgeny Velikhov, president of the Kurchatov Institute in Moscow, to finalize the distribution of tasks for the machine, the core of which is to be built in Italy and then installed in Troitsk, near Moscow, on the site of that institute’s present Triniti reactor. Velikhov, as it happens, is also the chair of the ITER council. Coppi says of these two different programs,  “there’s no competition, we are complementary.”

Well . . . Regular readers know this writer has little confidence in the ITER tokamak fusion scheme.  Perhaps its best that Italy and Russia fund such a device, but the plasma research has value and for that to be a third of the world away under the sway of the Putin regime of Russia, might not be such a great thing.

It’s a good thing to get a downsized reactor underway with the plasma research to follow.  Ignitor just might unravel the ITER ‘money pit effect’. Fusion, if that’s the result Ignitor can achieve will be a world-changing event wherever it happens-  self-sustaining or not.  It’s just a disappointment to see the leading edge in plasma and plasma fusion leave and take the brains that will explore go too.  OK, the world’s getting smaller – but it’s not that small just yet.


14 Comments so far

  1. MattMusson on May 17, 2010 9:37 AM

    It’s an interesting approach that could well show up the ITER folks. And, it could teach us lots of interesting things about plasma and plasma containment.

    But, it’s still orders of magnitude too complex and expensive to heat water to drive steam generators.

  2. Adam Drake on May 17, 2010 6:49 PM

    […] A Self-Sustaining Fusion Reactor Plan | New Energy and Fuel […]

  3. Your Future on May 22, 2010 3:21 PM

    More waste of taxpayer dollars. Fusion has never and will never produce net energy.

    Instead, put the money into more social programs, more health care, stronger corporate regulations, better environmental enforcement, etc.

  4. Your Future on June 18, 2010 1:32 PM

    It is time to halt this boondoggle before it sucks up precious taxpayer dollars which are so desperately needed to help the ever-growing underclass of people living in poverty.

  5. forex robot on July 4, 2010 10:32 AM

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  6. Your Future on July 17, 2010 4:27 PM

    It is time to halt these boondoggles before they suck up more precious taxpayer dollars which are so desperately needed to help the ever-growing underclass of people living in poverty.

    The taxpayer is being told to starve so these trojan programs can continue to leech away their livelihoods. Witness today’s ‘Austerity’ programs beginning to spread through Europe and soon everywhere… there will be no money for your children or retirement as the elites are spending every Country into bankrupcy with their Wars and so-called Defense Spending and spending on toxic Fission and blackhole Fusion ‘technologies’.

    From its inception to today, fusion has been a gigantic blackhole welfare program for the rich corporations and their scientistic employees with the starving taxpayer footing the bill.

    No more. Its time to end all public funding for these so-called ‘energy’ programs. If there’s money in it let the so-called ‘Free Market’ fund it. After all, those richie private investors already have trillions floating around that they don’t know what to do with, why don’t they risk their own assets and asses instead of making the taxpayer the victim? Hypocrisy, hypocrisy, hypocrisy.

  7. Spencer on September 17, 2010 3:39 PM

    You are all wrong, fusion is the ultimate energy source which will solve our energy needs.
    None of you understand that fusion can exceed break-even point if the right criteria are present. Currently, my design that I have developed can possibly exceed break-even point, however I need the capital to design such a machine. But I am building a much simpler prototype intended to produce neutrons for a senior high school project. Do not assume that since billions of dollars have been wasted on “other” machines, that fusion cannot work.

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