Scientists Harness Imperfections to Enhance Plasma Confinement for Fusion Energy

Taking inspiration from the Japanese art of Kintsugi, where broken pottery is mended with gold to create something more beautiful, scientists have developed a novel approach to managing plasma – the super-hot state of matter crucial for fusion energy production.

By carefully tailoring magnetic field imperfections, known as error fields, researchers have found a way to improve and enhance plasma confinement, a critical step towards harnessing fusion as a viable power source.

In a study published in the journal Nature Communications, an international team led by physicist Seong-Moo Yang from the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) outlined their groundbreaking method. “Our novel method identifies optimal error field corrections, enhancing plasma stability,” Yang said. “This method was proven to enhance plasma stability under different plasma conditions, for example, when the plasma was under conditions of high and low magnetic confinement.”

Error fields, typically caused by minuscule defects in the magnetic coils that confine the plasma, have long been a nuisance for fusion researchers, as even tiny errors can disrupt the plasma and halt fusion reactions. However, the new approach embraces these imperfections, using them to intentionally degrade confinement in a controlled manner, much like a tiny hole in a balloon prevents it from exploding.

“This is actually a very effective way of breaking the symmetry of the system, so humans can intentionally degrade the confinement. It’s like making a very tiny hole in a balloon so that it will not explode,” explained SangKyeun Kim, a PPPL staff research scientist and co-author of the paper.

One of the greatest challenges in managing fusion reactions is simultaneously maintaining the stability of both the core and the edge of the plasma. The new approach demonstrates that adjusting error fields can achieve this delicate balance, suppressing edge instabilities without causing substantial confinement loss.

“We are trying to protect the device,” said PPPL Staff Research Physicist Qiming Hu, an author of the study.

While the research was conducted using the KSTAR tokamak in South Korea, known for its ability to adjust magnetic error field configurations, the findings have significant implications for the design of future fusion pilot plants, potentially making them more efficient and reliable.

The researchers are now working on incorporating artificial intelligence into their control system to improve real-time plasma management further.

“Using AI, you can basically teach the system what to expect and be able to use that artificial intelligence to predict ahead of time what will be necessary to control the plasma and how to implement it in real-time,” explained Joseph Snipes, PPPL’s deputy head of the Tokamak Experimental Science Department and co-author of the paper.

As the world continues to explore fusion as a promising source of clean energy, this innovative approach to harnessing imperfections opens up new possibilities for advancing fusion technology and bringing it closer to reality.

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