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Scientists to create prototype for new hot plasma nuclear reactor

By Derek Lambie & Anna Liesowska
02 December 2014

Pioneering experiment using incredible temperatures warmer than the sun of up to 30 million degrees could produce new energy source.

Alexander Ivanov, deputy director of the Budker Institute of Nuclear Physics shows open quasi-stationary magnetic trap. Picture: Yuri Pozdnyakov 

Scientists in Siberia are developing a pioneering new type of nuclear reactor using temperatures twice as hot as the sun that could create an energy of the future.

Costing approximately 500 million roubles ($9.8 million), it is being built near Novosibirsk by the Budker Institute of Nuclear Physics and will allow the study of high energy plasma heated to to an incredible 30 million degrees Celsius to make power.

It is an experimental form of thermonuclear fusion, and it is initially hoped it could be harnessed to incinerate radioactive waste.

But if successful, it could eventually pave the way for a new way of generating electricity.

And since it uses hydrogen isotope deuterium - rather than the radioactive tritium - it is considered far less dangerous and gives out a lower output of energy.

Alexander Ivanov, the deputy director of the institute, said a working prototype of the new reactor will be constructed over the next few years.

He told the Siberian Times: 'This will be a full-scale model of the reactor, which can be used for research or, for example, for the processing of radioactive waste.

'There are a lot of technologies to create such a complex. They are new and it takes some time to master them. All the problems with plasma physics that we will address are relevant to the global scientific community.'

Scientists at the Budker Institute have been experimenting with plasma physics for decades and last December managed a world record temperature of 4.5million degrees Celsius when heating hot plasma in an open quasi-stationary magnetic trap.

Open gas-dynamic trap


Open gas-dynamic trap

Open quasi-stationary magnetic trap (top) and generators of GOL-3 - Open corrugated trap (bottom). Pictures: Vadim Makhorov 

Heated by a powerful source of microwave radiation, the plasma was confined for about ten milliseconds, enough time for it to create a neutron source for hybrid reactors.

It is this process that the experts hope to develop further to create power.

The idea of using plasma in controlled thermonuclear reactors actually dates back to the 1950s, when the institute's founder Gersh Budker proposed such a method. Since then the facility, in the scenic town of Akademgorodok, has become one of the world experts in studying its properties and its potential use in fusion reactors. 

They key problem in achieving thermonuclear fusion, however, is how to confine this extra hot plasma. Due to its high temperature it cannot be in direct contact with any solid material and has to be held in a vacuum. Using a mirrored gas dynamic trap, the scientists hope to control the plasma.

The new reactor - which has financial support from the Russian Science Foundation and the Ministry of Education - will have powerful radiation protection and allow the experts to study the properties of the substance in safe conditions.

Deputy Director Yuri Tikhonov said: 'We will carry out only modelling experiments with the generation of electrons, but the reactions will match reality.

'We won't be generating electricity either but we just need to probe the reaction can occur and that the demanded plasma parameters can be achieved.'

His colleague, Dr Ivanov, said these parameters will be set at an incredible 10 million degrees Celsius, more than twice what was reached last December, with the hope of eventually reaching 30 million degrees. At its core the temperature of the sun is 15 million degrees Celsius, or about 27 million degrees Fahrenheit.

He added: 'We hope to increase this temperature [of 10 million degrees] to double or triple that, so we will create a virtually pure reactor.'

Institute of Nuclear Physics

Budker Institute of Nuclear Physics in Novosibirsk. Picture: Slava Stepanov

The development comes at a time in which Russia is participating in a separate global project aimed at the creation of a new thermonuclear reactor.

Known as ITER - the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor - aims to build the world's largest tokamak fusion facility in the south of France.

Costing at least 607 billion roubles ($12.8 billion) it hopes to make the long-awaited transition to allow the use of plasma in the full-scale production of electricity.

Following a series of delays and budget problems, completion of the reactor is expected in 2027 with funding from the United States, South Korea, China, Japan, India and the European Union as well as Russia.

The Budker facility is based in Akademgorodok, a satellite town south of Novosibirsk and home to some of the greatest scientific minds anywhere in Russia.

The town was created in Soviet times to allow forward-thinking scientists from Moscow and St Petersburg to have a pleasant lifestyle, enabling them to work successfully.

Set amid enchanting woodland, and close to the Ob Sea, it is now home to 32 institutes and researching centres, the Siberian branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences, and the Novosibirsk State University. 

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