Fusion energy holds the promise of virtually limitless, clean power production. Although fusion has been demonstrated in the laboratory, scientists have been unable to successfully harness it as a power source due to complex scientific and technological challenges and the high cost of research. Most fusion research focuses on magnetic confinement (low plasma density) or inertial confinement (high plasma density), but hybrid approaches with intermediate densities, such as magneto-inertial fusion (MIF), could cost less because of their reduced energy, size, and power density requirements. In MIF, a magnetically insulated plasma fuel called a target is heated and compressed, causing its nuclei to fuse. However, it is challenging to maintain the temperature and stability of the plasma long enough for fusion to take place. Additionally, the process of heating and compressing the fuel often requires single-use components that are destroyed with each experiment and need to be replaced, adding to the cost and time required for research.
Project Innovation + Advantages:
Swarthmore College, along with its partner Bryn Mawr College, will investigate a new kind of plasma fusion target that may offer improved stability at low cost and relatively low energy input. The research team will design and develop new modules that accelerate and evolve plasmas to create elongated structures known as Taylor states, which have helical magnetic field lines resembling a rope. These Taylor state structures exhibit interesting and potentially very beneficial properties upon compression, and could be used as a fusion target if they are able to maintain their temperatures and stability long enough to be compressed to fusion conditions. The new plasma-forming modules will be tested using the team’s existing Swarthmore Spheromak Experiment device (SSX), which has an advanced diagnostic suite and the capability to perform 100 experiments per day. This ability will enable rapid progress in understanding the behavior of these plasma plumes and illuminate their potential for use as new targets in the pursuit of fusion reactors.
If successful, Swarthmore’s work will introduce a new type of plasma fusion target, enabling a low-cost, rapid development path towards economical fusion power.
Swarthmore’s innovation could accelerate the development of cost-effective fusion reactors, which could provide a nearly limitless supply of domestic power and eliminate dependence on foreign sources of energy.
Fusion reactors offer nearly zero emissions and produce manageable waste products. If widely adopted, they could significantly reduce or nearly eliminate carbon emissions from the electricity generation sector
Swarthmore’s approach, if viable, could enable a low-cost path to fusion, reducing research costs to develop economical reactors.