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Nuclear Reactor Aims for Self-Sustaining Fusion

• Technology Review

In a few years, an experimental nuclear fusion reactor near Moscow could be the first to yield a self-sustaining fusion reaction. If the Italian-Russian project is successful, it would be a key milestone for fusion power.

Fusion power: Part of a plasma chamber from an earlier prototype of the planned fusion reactor.
Credit: ENEA

The proposed reactor is based on a design developed by Bruno Coppi, a professor of physics at MIT, and principal investigator on the reactor project with Italy's National Agency for New Technologies, Energy and the Environment. Three similar reactors based on the same design have already been built at MIT. Italian and Russian physicists plan to meet on May 24 to chart a course for the new reactor, called Ignitor, in the first such meeting since the two countries agreed to join forces on the project in April.

Ignitor is a tokamak reactor, a doughnut-shaped device that uses powerful magnetic fields to produce fusion by squeezing superheated plasma of hydrogen isotopes. As an electric current and high-frequency radio waves pass through the plasma, heating it to extreme temperatures, the surrounding electromagnetic field confines the plasma under high pressure. The combined pressure and heat causes the hydrogen nuclei to fuse together to form helium in a process that releases tremendous amounts of heat. In a fully functional fusion reactor, this heat would be used to power an electricity-generating turbine.


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