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Nov 14, 2013 10:27 AM EST

Researchers Develop Experimental Method that Could Help Fusion Energy Become Commercially Used

ARC Fusion Reactor
(Photo : Flickr/CC) Tony Stark's ARC reactor is a fictionalized version of fusion energy.

Researchers from MIT's Plasma Science and Fusion Center have developed a new technique for mapping material makeup in a magnetic fusion device, according to a press release.

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Materials are an integral piece to fusion becoming a commercially used energy source, as they must be able to last in a hostile environment to work properly, safely and economically.

With the researchers' new method, materials can be measured in between plasma experiments. This will help them understand how materials develop over time and the vigorous relationship between plasma and the materials.

While the object to get the materials to last a long time in such a hostile environment is the objective, doing so is no easy task. Materials are subject to massive amounts of erosion during its interaction with plasma, the mixing can create unintended alloys and the storage of plasma fuel.

Those challenges, if not addressed greatly decrease the fusion reactor's effectiveness and lifespan. They also change the properties of the materials from what they were originally intended for, hampering the plasma's performance. These challenges, combined with the fusion reactor device's hostile environment will create great difficulty for an experimental study.

Lead by professor Dennis Whyte, graduate students Harold Barnard, Zach Hartwig and Brandon Sorbom, the MIT research team used for the first time what is known as ion beam analysis (IBA) with a magnetic fusion device.

IBA is a way to examine materials in high-energy particle beams with precise measurements of structure and size. IBA is vital to any fusion facility, as it is the only known way to study the materials in a fusion reactor at a given moment in time.

The researchers will present their findings at the American Physical Society Division of Plasma Physics meeting in Denver in November.

Their method could affect the future of fusion energy, as it would not require existing facilities to make any major modifications to their own devices. In other words, the method could potentially be adopted as a new standard for magnetic fusion devices.

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