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Tri Alpha Energy fires up new plasma machine

Tri Alpha Energy's Norman plasma generator
Tri Alpha Energy’s plasma generator has been nicknamed “Norman” in honor of the company’s late co-founder, physicist Norman Rostoker. (Tri Alpha Energy Photo)

Tri Alpha Energy, the fusion energy venture backed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, says it has achieved first plasma in its latest generator.

The $100 million device at Tri Alpha’s lab in Foothill Ranch, Calif., had been known as C-2W, but it’s been renamed “Norman” in honor of company co-founder Norman Rostoker, a fusion physicist who died in 2014 at the age of 89.

“We believe this machine will continue to prove the approach to plasma physics he first envisioned and to which he dedicated his life,” Michl Binderbauer, Tri Alpha’s president and chief technology officer, said today in a news release.

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Fusion ‘pretzel’ fires up first hydrogen plasma

Image: Wendelstein 7-X
The first hydrogen plasma lights up the interior of the Wendelstein 7-X fusion device. (Credit: IPP)

Hydrogen plasma was produced for the first time on Feb. 3 in Germany’s Wendelstein 7-X fusion device, which has been called the “reactor designed in hell” as well as the“pretzel that could save Planet Earth.”

The Wendelstein 7-X was built at the Max Planck Institute of Plasma Physics in Greifswald at a cost of €1 billion ($1.1 billion). The device, known as a stellarator, is built to contain superheated plasma inside a magnetic chamber with a tangled, pretzel-like configuration.

Physicists at the institute are hoping that the crazy-looking design will keep the plasma stable for extended periods within the magnetic field. That’s been an issue for plasma chambers with a more typical doughnut-like design, which are called tokamaks.

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Science News

Startups bring new attitude to fusion quest

Image: Prototype fusion reactor
General Fusion is working on a prototype fusion reactor. (Credit: General Fusion)

The lab where a company called General Fusion is trying to spark an energy revolution looks like a cross between a hardware store and a mad scientist’s lair. Bins full of electrical gadgets are piled high against the walls. Capacitors recycled from a bygone experiment are stacked up like bottles in wine racks. Ten-foot-high contraptions bristle with tangled wires and shiny plumbing.

Michael Delage, General Fusion’s vice president for strategy and corporate development, makes sure nothing is turned on when he takes a visitor through the lab, which is tucked away in a bland industrial park near Vancouver. He’s worried about the voltage.

“If you get a broken wire or something like that, you get a very loud bang,” Delage explains.

His company and others are looking for a bang of a different sort: a smashing together of superhot hydrogen atoms that produces a net gain in energy. Nuclear fusion. It’s the same mass-to-energy reaction that’s behind the sun’s radiative power and the blast of a hydrogen bomb, but scaled down to a manageable level for power generation.

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EMC2 revives its quest for nuclear fusion

Image: Plasma glow
Plasma glows inside EMC2 Fusion’s test device during a high-energy shot in 2013. (Credit: EMC2 Fusion)

After languishing in limbo for most of the last year, EMC2 Fusion Development Corp. says it’s back in business with an unorthodox concept for nuclear fusion power plants.

The concept is variously known as Polywell fusion, inertial electrostatic confinement or magnetic cusp confinement..

If anyone ever finds a way to harness fusion – the reaction that powers the sun – it could usher in an era of low-cost, plentiful, relatively clean energy. Lots of research teams are trying to do it, ranging from the international ITER consortium to private companies such as Lockheed Martin, Tri Alpha Energy, General Fusion, Helion Energy, LPPFusion and EMC2. So far, no one’s produced a net gain in energy.

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GeekWire

SPOILER: How Star Wars uses plasma physics

Image: Poster
A detail from the Star Wars movie poster highlights weaponry. (Credit: Lucasfilm / Disney)

Spoiler Alert! This post doesn’t reveal any major plot twists, but it does explore a significant element of the new movie. Stop reading now if you want it to remain a surprise.

X-wing fighter technology hasn’t changed all that much in 30 years, but one of the threats unveiled in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” suggests that the dark side has upped its game when it comes to plasma physics.

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Want to do fusion research? Here’s your chance

Image: Brendan Cassidy at General Fusion
General Fusion’s Brendan Cassidy shows off a test reactor in Burnaby, B.C. (Photo by Alan Boyle)

It’s not clear when fusion power will pay off, but there’s a way to earn a cool $20,000 in fusion research. And you don’t even have to be a plasma physicist or an energy entrepreneur.

All you have to do is make perfect sense out of the data generated by the plasma experiments being conducted by General Fusion in Burnaby, B.C.

“The challenge is basically to come up with a metric for predicting the performance of a plasma shot,” Brendan Cassidy, the company’s crowdsourcing project leader, told GeekWire.

General Fusion is a private venture that’s attracted tens of millions of dollars in venture capital, including investments from Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos. Over the past five years or so, the company has conducted about 100,000 experiments. Those experiments, or shots, involve injecting blobs of super-heated hydrogen gas into plasma chambers and studying how they behave. A single shot lasts somewhere around a thousandth of a second.

“Our shot data includes signals from nearly 100 probes measuring things like magnetic field strength, plasma density and the spectral composition of plasma light,” Cassidy explained in a blog post outlining the challenge. “There are also configuration settings for each shot, and calculated single point, or scalar, metrics.”

The quality of the plasma varies from shot to shot, and General Fusion’s researchers don’t fully understand why. It’d be nice to distill the shot data into algorithms that predict which settings will produce the best shots.

Toward that end, hundreds of gigabytes of data from previous shots are being made available for a challenge titled “Data-Driven Prediction of Plasma Performance.” After signing up, competitors can download the data, look for correlations and patterns, devise their algorithms and send them in for evaluation by March 9.

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