Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Plasma on the Table (with video!)

CCFE’s graduates Matti Coleman, Alex Cackett, James Buchanan, Steph Hall, Andy Busse and Harry Robinson have been making a table-top plasma device with the aim to show it at Science Fairs and in schools. Here is their account of the first time they turned it on… don't forget to have a look at the video at the bottom of this post! 

On an otherwise uneventful Tuesday afternoon, a new experiment is being run at Culham Centre for Fusion Energy (CCFE). In a dark, dusty laboratory buried deep in the bowels of the K1 building, the lights are dimmed, breaths are held and the air is thick with tense anticipation.
A dial on a power supply is cautiously turned up by lead electrical engineer and bearded Renaissance man Andy Busse; 500V then 1kV, steadily onwards and upwards. At first, there is nothing, just silence and the dim flicker of dust particles moving through the solitary beam of light entering through the small obscured window near the ceiling. A single bead of sweat drops from the brow of project manager and chief mechanical engineer, Matti Coleman, and explodes upon the dirty floor. The grim spectre of failure looms heavily above the room. But then, sparks appear, small and faint at first, then brighter, and gradually a dense ball of light forms in the centre of a bell jar which, in the middle of the room, is the focus of all attention. Success! A plasma!  

Breaths are released and the tension falls away as hands are shook and pats on the back are heartily given and received in the knowledge that several months of hard work (well reasonably hard, there was tons of paperwork) were not in vain.

This experiment marks a new endeavour for CCFE. While all of the other main plasma devices on the site are based on magnetic confinement, the trapping of charged particles using complicated toroidal helical magnetic fields, and are geared towards the development of fusion energy, this new device, which will not produce any fusion at all, is geared solely towards looking really awesome. 

‘Inertial Electrostatic Confinement’ (IEC) devices, known colloquially as ‘Fusors’ and frequently fabricated by internet enthusiasts in their garages, simply use two metal grids with a large potential difference across them to create and trap a plasma. The large electric field between the two grids accelerates ions towards the centre where they collide and can, in principle, initiate fusion reactions if the potential difference is large enough and if deuterium gas is used.  

Fusors have been shown not to be capable of generating net power and so the device being built by the crack team of CCFE graduates is for the sole purpose of engaging the public in science, and helping to give them a visually stunning demonstration of how electric and magnetic fields can be used to trap charged particles.

Having successfully completed a trial run in the laboratory the team now intends to design and construct a portable demonstration stand for the Fusor so that it can be taken to fairs and schools. It will only be run with air or inert gases such as Neon or Argon, which also make colourful plasmas, and not deuterium due to the belief that irradiating children with fusion neutrons might be bad and may not lead to the development of awesome superpowers. Work continues... 
video

Authors: James Buchanan and Matti Coleman
Pictures and video: A classical spherical grid is being tested, along with a toroidal one; the latter aims to imitate its bigger brother, the Joint European Torus (JET), also on site.

 

4 comments:

  1. It is great to see some young Tokamak guys getting into the fusor technology. I have always advocated that using a static electric field was a very elegant, simple and straightforward way to heat plasma to fusion conditions. It is shame your only doing Neon or Argon -- and not going for deuterium.

    As you probably know there is a very big amateur fusor community in the states, One of the best is the Northwest Nuclear Consortium in Washington State. They have been around since 2010 and are the only high school program in the US with a working fusion reactor. They recently placed 2nd in the physics category of the Intel International Science Fair. Collectively, these kids have won $410,000+ in college scholarships!

    Even more exciting is how their machine preforms. The team uses a titanium inner cathode, which is so polished, it actually forms a stable beam. Don't believe me? See for yourself: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KQD-z6pqTiE .

    Far more exciting than fusors, is what you can do, when you give IEC the right talent and resources. The best example of this is Phoenix Nuclear Labs in Wisconsin (if you have not checked these guys already). This company uses an electric field to heat deuterium into a beam, and fire it at a gas targets. Their machine can do 100 billion neutrons a second, for an entire day. That's 24 hours of sustained fusion reactions.
    ====
    Of course, none of these technologies will ever lead to fusion power. Even though they are simpler, cheaper, smaller, and easier to work with than any Tokamak ever built. Even though amateurs and small teams can churn very impressive results with almost no real funding or little government support. I mean in the case of the fusor, it's a metal cage which - sitting in the path of the plasma - that drives up conduction losses leading to high energy loss. There are of course ways to get around this, with non-neutral plasma clouds. But,of course, those ideas have been excused theoretically as un-workable; even though they have hardly been tested. I guess we'd better keep pouring billions, all our talent, and all our national fusion resources into ITER. Which we have been developing for decades and which we know will not be commercial, or even function until at least 2020 (if not later).

    ===
    As a young fusion researcher, I know you did not create this mess. Where all the worlds fusion research is being eaten, by one concept -- one big machine. Meanwhile, many other ideas are starved for funding. But, just because "the higher-ups" tell you confidently that Tokamaks are the ONLY path to fusion -- it does not mean you have to listen to them. Nobody has fusion solved yet. The honest truth is: we don't know what a fusion power plant looks like --- so it's fair to say plenty of us could be wrong.

    ReplyDelete
  2. It is great to see some young Tokamak guys getting into the fusor technology. I have always advocated that using a static electric field was a very elegant, simple and straightforward way to heat plasma to fusion conditions. It is shame your only doing Neon or Argon -- and not going for deuterium.

    As you probably know there is a very big amateur fusor community in the states, One of the best is the Northwest Nuclear Consortium in Washington State. They have been around since 2010 and are the only high school program in the US with a working fusion reactor. They recently placed 2nd in the physics category of the Intel International Science Fair. Collectively, these kids have won $410,000+ in college scholarships!

    Even more exciting is how their machine preforms. The team uses a titanium inner cathode, which is so polished, it actually forms a stable beam. Don't believe me? See for yourself: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KQD-z6pqTiE .

    Far more exciting than fusors, is what you can do, when you give IEC the right talent and resources. The best example of this is Phoenix Nuclear Labs in Wisconsin (if you have not checked these guys already). This company uses an electric field to heat deuterium into a beam, and fire it at a gas targets. Their machine can do 100 billion neutrons a second, for an entire day. That's 24 hours of sustained fusion reactions.
    ====
    Of course, none of these technologies will ever lead to fusion power. Even though they are simpler, cheaper, smaller, and easier to work with than any Tokamak ever built. Even though amateurs and small teams can churn very impressive results with almost no real funding or little government support. I mean in the case of the fusor, it's a metal cage which - sitting in the path of the plasma - that drives up conduction losses leading to high energy loss. There are of course ways to get around this, with non-neutral plasma clouds. But,of course, those ideas have been excused theoretically as un-workable; even though they have hardly been tested. I guess we'd better keep pouring billions, all our talent, and all our national fusion resources into ITER. Which we have been developing for decades and which we know will not be commercial, or even function until at least 2020 (if not later).

    ===
    As a young fusion researcher, I know you did not create this mess. Where all the worlds fusion research is being eaten, by one concept -- one big machine. Meanwhile, many other ideas are starved for funding. But, just because "the higher-ups" tell you confidently that Tokamaks are the ONLY path to fusion -- it does not mean you have to listen to them. Nobody has fusion solved yet. The honest truth is: we don't know what a fusion power plant looks like --- so it's fair to say plenty of us could be wrong. Hence, we need to feed many more concepts. The fusion world has to change. We, the young guys, the fresh faces, we have to do it. We can do it together.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I will just add -- Here is my conceptions of what fusion power could look like: http://thepolywellblog.blogspot.com/ -- But I could be wrong just like any other researcher in fusion.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Thanks for your comments John, I agree that we should persue all of the different ways of getting Fusion power up and running. - Ailsa

    ReplyDelete