Angela Merkel switches on Wendelstein 7-X fusion device

Experimental operation of the fusion reactor type stellarator kicks off with festive ceremony

In a bid to advance plasma research, Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel actually pushed some buttons herself: on February 3, 2016, Merkel, during a visit to the Wendelstein X-7 experimental fusion reactor at the Max Planck Institute of Plasma Physics (IPP) in Greifswald, personally flipped the switch to generate the machine’s first hydrogen plasma. "This marks the beginning of an experiment unique in the world, which can bring us one step closer to the energy source of the future," the Chancellor said. Wendelstein 7-X, fired up in early December 2015 using helium; now it has started its experimental scientific operation. With Wendelstein 7-X, the world’s largest and most advanced fusion device of the stellarator type, researchers want to investigate this configuration’s suitability for use in a power plant. "For the Max Planck Society, the operational start of Wendelstein-7X is a milestone in its own history", said Martin Stratmann, President of the Max Planck Society. Stratamnn went on to thank the Institute’s researchers: "You have achieved a true milestone in plasma physics and technical engineering on the road towards a sustainable energy supply in the 21st century."

It did not take the Chancellor long to find the button she was expected to press in order to switch on the first hydrogen plasma in Wendelstein 7-X.  Staff members at the Max Planck Institute had placed it on a glass cube, adorned with a laser-cut silhouette of the fusion plant, and prominently positioned it on a steel column at the edge of the control room. When Angela Merkel energetically pressed the glass cube, a bright glow flickered on a monitor and provided a glimpse into the heart of the plasma vessel.

With the governmental switch of the button, a ceremony reached its peak, which marked the start of the device’s scientific experimental operation. "Every step we are taking on the long road towards a fusion power plant is a success," Angela Merkel said.
After all, one the world's most pressing questions is how we can address the increasing energy needs of a growing world population without missing our climate goals. "The benefits of fusion energy are obvious: hydrogen as a fuel is available to an almost unlimited degree. It is a clean energy source without climate-damaging CO2 emissions and long-lived radioactive waste. "

Werner Heisenberg vision comes true

In front of numerous guests from the realms of science and politics, Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel triggered a 2-megawatt pulse of microwave heating, which transformed a tiny quantity of hydrogen gas into an extremely hot low-density hydrogen plasma. This entails separation of the electrons from the nuclei of the hydrogen atoms. Confined in the magnetic cage generated by Wendelstein 7-X, the charged particles levitate without making contact with the walls of the plasma chamber. “With a temperature of 80 million degrees and a lifetime of a quarter of a second, the device’s first hydrogen plasma has completely lived up to our expectations”, states Hans-Stephan Bosch, whose division is responsible for operation of Wendelstein 7-X.

“With Wendelstein 7-X, part of Werner Heisenberg’s vision has come true. I am sure it would fill him with joy and pride to see us here today, "Martin Stratmann said. Such fusion plants stood at the beginning of a long development, which might culminate in completely new possibilities of energy production. "It is up to us to lay the scientific foundations for this, showcasing options which can be used by society and politics when the time has come,” said the Max Planck President.

A long-term investment in the future of energy supply

The booting up of first hydrogen plasma in the W7-X is to be followed by many other plasma experiments, with the goal of clarifying fundamental questions of plasma research. Chancellor Merkel also held a committed plea for basic research: "The example of nuclear fusion has clearly demonstrated what a drawn-out and costly process basic research can be. Besides knowledge and a large portion of perseverance, it also requires creativity as well as audacity." Those who dared to venture into unexplored territory often did not know where their chosen path would lead them. Sometimes such paths would end in dead ends, and sometimes they would lead to completely unexpected additional insights. But without fundamental research certain findings could not be achieved. Basic research, so Merkel, lays the foundations for a better life.

Erwin Sellering also praised the research at the Max Planck Institute for Plasma Research as a long-term investment aimed at meeting rising energy demand in the future. The Minister-President of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern congratulated the staff of the Institute on their contribution: "You carry out excellent work on the highest level." As Minister-President of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, he was proud that the scientists of the region positioned themselves so prominently in the global scientific landscape.

The goal: plasma discharges lasting 30 minutes

Before the Federal Chancellor fired the first hydrogen plasma in Wendelstein 7-X, the researchers in Greifswald had started the fusion device on 10 December 2015 with an initial helium plasma. Since then, Wendelstein 7-X has produced more than 300 discharges with the rare gas, helium. These served primarily to clean the plasma vessel. The cleaner the vessel wall, the more the plasma temperature increased, finally attaining six million degrees. In addition, plasma heating and data recording were tested, and the first measuring facilities for investigating the plasma were put into operation, viz. complex instrumentation such as X-ray spectrometers, interferometers, laser scattering and video diagnostics. “This makes everything ready for the next step”, states Project Head Thomas Klinger. “We are changing from helium to hydrogen plasmas, our proper subject of investigation.”

The present initial experimentation phase will last until mid-March. The plasma vessel will then be opened in order to install carbon tiles for protecting the vessel walls and a so-called “divertor” for removing impurities. “These facilities will enable us to attain higher heating powers, higher temperatures, and longer discharges lasting up to ten seconds”, explains Thomas Klinger. Successive extensions are planned until, in about four years, discharges lasting 30 minutes can be produced and it can be checked at the full heating power of 20 megawatts whether Wendelstein 7-X will achieve its optimisation targets.


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