New experimental facility boosts European research on fusion energy
Brussels, 3 February 2016
A key experimental facility in the EU-backed research programme for developing low carbon fusion electricity is inaugurated today in Germany in the presence of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
The Wendelstein7-X 'stellarator' was completed at the end of 2015 by the Max-Planck-Institut für Plasmaphysik in Greifswald with a €1 billion investment, of which the EU's Euratom Programme contributed about 20%. It is fully integrated into the EUROfusion joint programme, a collaboration between all national fusion research labs in Europe, and co-funded by the Euratom Horizon 2020 Programme, enabling all European researchers to benefit from this new cutting-edge plasma physics facility.
Carlos Moedas, European Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation, said: "Fusion energy is part of the global quest for a safe, clean and limitless source of energy. Accessible to the international research community, the Wendelstein7-X experimental facility will reinforce Europe's leading role in international research on fusion energy."
On the day of the inauguration, which was also attended by Robert-Jan Smits, the European Commission's Director-General for Research and Innovation, the stellarator successfully produced its first hydrogen plasma. In this process, the containment of the super-hot plasma is achieved via a specially optimised magnetic field produced by a complex array of superconducting coils. This stellarator containment method – in which the magnetic field needed to confine the hot plasma is produced solely by coils external to the fusion plasma – differs from the 'tokamak' concept employed at ITER, the world's largest fusion experiment currently under construction at Cadarache in France. In a tokamak, it is also necessary to drive a current through the plasma itself.
ITER is a global collaboration, with Europe as the major contributor, and remains the key stepping-stone to the demonstration of fusion electricity generation by the middle of the century, as foreseen in Europe's fusion electricity roadmap. In this roadmap, the completion of the Wendelstein7-X facility is also an important milestone, since for the first time researchers can now investigate the true viability of the stellarator confinement method to complement the research on tokamaks. The recent Communication on the Energy Union underlined the importance for Europe to retain technological leadership in this evolving field, and both ITER and Wendelstein7-X are crucial in this respect.
Fusion energy research aims at creating a new sustainable energy source based on the mechanism that powers our sun and the stars: release of energy by fusing light nuclei. To achieve this on Earth, a gas of hydrogen isotopes must be heated to extremely high temperatures, as much as 100 million °C, which strips the electrons from the atoms and creates a 'plasma' of charged particles in which the atomic nuclei can fuse together. At such temperatures, the plasma must be kept away from material surfaces, and this is achieved using powerful magnets. Research focuses on toroidal (doughnut-shaped) magnetic confinement concepts such as the tokamak and stellarator.