Researchers in the US have now developed an imaging technique that could help bring fusion power to fruition. Richard Petrasso and colleagues at the Massachusettes Institute of Technology and Wolfgang Theobold and colleagues at the University of Rochester have used "proton radiography" to map the electromagnetic structure of the extremely hot, dense plasmas in which fusion reactions take place. The technique has revealed hitherto unseen magnetic and electric fields, and could help researchers to get fusion plasmas to ignite—the key to electricity generation.
The MIT-Rochester technique applies to inertial-confinement fusion (ICF), which is one of two possible routes to a fusion reactor. The idea behind ICF is to bombard fuel capsules (typically containing deutrium and tritium) with high-powered laser pulses so that they implode, generating a small volume of hot, dense plasma in which the deutrium and tritium nuclei can overcome their electrical replusion and produce a helium nucleus plus a free neutron. Since these reaction products are lighter than the original nuclei, copious energy is released via Einstein's mass-energy equivalence.
In the new work, the MIT and Rochester researchers used 36 beams at the high-powered OMEGA laser facility at Rochester to symmetrically implode ICF fuel capsules (Science 319 1223). The same beams also struck a different capsule 1 cm away which was filled with deuterium and helium-3 gas. Protons released from this "backlighter" capsule all have the same (known) energy, so by measuring the deflection of the positively charged protons that had transited some plasma the team was able to map the electromagentic fields present in ICF implosions for the first time.
Diagram of the experiment used to image the plasma. Protons from the backlighter capsule (left) travel through the target capsule before their position and energy is determined by a detector. (Courtesy: Science)