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U.S. Department of Energy awards advance fusion research at the UW

Amy Sprague
September 22, 2020

Christopher Hansen

A&A Research Scientist Christopher Hansen with the LTX experiment at PPPL.

A&A was awarded two grants from the United States Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Fusion Energy Sciences to advance the research of creating fusion energy. As A&A Research Scientist Christopher Hansen explains, “Fusion energy is the process that powers the sun and other stars, and it requires heating isotopes of hydrogen to temperatures in excess of 100 million degrees Celsius, producing plasma. Obviously, reaching such high temperatures on earth presents a few challenges.”

Those challenges are worth hammering out because fusion energy has enormous potential to replace fossil fuels in our power plants and also make long-range space travel possible.

The University of Washington (UW) has been a leader in fusion research and the plasma confinement system called a tokamak, and DOE’s awards will advance the university’s efforts to improve the process and current inefficiencies in heating plasma to such high degrees and making the process more economical for smaller-scale models.

Research under principal investigator Hansen, in collaboration with researchers at the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab (PPPL), will provide a computer model of plasmas produced in the recently upgraded Lithium Tokamak eXperiment (LTX-b) at PPPL. This experiment aims to tackle two main challenges of heating man-made plasmas due to plasma inevitably coming into contact with the wall of the chamber: the chamber wall can melt and the plasma will cool, requiring more heating and lowering efficiency.

Hansen explains, “LTX-b is investigating a novel liquid metal wall that avoids the melting problem and acts like double-sided tape, causing plasma that contacts the wall to stick, preventing it from reentering and cooling the other fuel.”

Brian Nelson, Tom Jarboe, and John Rogers

Brian Nelson, Tom Jarboe, and John Rogers in UW's HIT-SI lab.

The other grant, led by principal investigator and A&A Research Scientist Roger Raman with his colleagues Tom Jarboe, Brian Nelson, and John Rogers, will advance Transient Coaxial Helicity Injection (CHI), which was originally developed here at the UW in A&A’s HIT-SI lab. This method is a step in simplifying a fusion reactor to make it more economical, and therefore, scalable, for widespread use in power plants.

Raman says, “This grant will help us execute experiments to figure out the best vessel and magnetic coil configurations in our tokamak to maximize current generation and also test an electromagnetic wave heating system to more efficiently heat up plasmas.”

This work will be done in partnership with the University of Wisconsin, Kyushu University in Japan, and PPPL.

Jarboe, who leads UW’s CHI collaboration with PPPL, said, “Here in A&A, we have very idealistic people interested in better energy and more efficient propulsion. These DOE grants reaffirm the great work being done here at UW – work that will serve to transform the world’s energy systems.”