The Potential Power of Fusion: Liquid Lithium and the Future of Energy

Emerging research suggests that fusion as a power source could become more viable through the application of liquid lithium to the internal walls of devices containing fusion plasma. Scientists at the Department of Energy’s Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) are striving to harness the power of fusion more efficiently, using devices known as tokamaks to create and confine plasma using magnetic fields. By improving energy confinement, these researchers aim to make fusion technology more practical, cost-effective, and appealing to governments and industries seeking clean and sustainable alternatives to fossil fuels.

The latest findings from the PPPL, highlighted in a recent presentation by research physicist Dennis Boyle at the American Physical Society’s Division of Plasma Physics meeting, showcase the potential of liquid lithium in fusion technology. Within the Lab’s Lithium Tokamak Experiment-Beta (LTX-β), scientists have applied a coating of liquid lithium to the interior of the tokamak, resulting in enhanced plasma performance. This breakthrough paves the way for future designs of fusion power plants.

Previous experiments conducted on LTX-β focused on solid lithium coatings, which demonstrated their ability to enhance plasma performance. However, liquid lithium proves to be a more suitable option for large-scale tokamaks. Richard Majeski, head of LTX-β and managing principal research physicist at PPPL, emphasizes that one of the major challenges in developing fusion energy lies in constructing a viable wall to confine the plasma. PPPL is dedicated to finding solutions to this challenge and bridging the gap to bring fusion energy to the power grid.

The remarkable results obtained through LTX-β experiments demonstrate liquid lithium’s significant advantages. Its application allows for improved plasma performance and potentially reduces the need for repairs. Acting as a protective barrier to the inner walls of the tokamak, liquid lithium absorbs around 40% of hydrogen ions escaping from the plasma, reducing their recycling back into the plasma as cold neutral gas. This low-recycling environment maintains the edge temperature of the plasma closer to its core, enabling better heat confinement and minimizing a variety of instabilities.

Additionally, the presence of liquid lithium facilitates an increase in plasma density when high-energy neutral particles are injected to heat and fuel the plasma. When solid lithium was used, only a small density increase was observed. However, the introduction of liquid lithium resulted in a change of dynamics within the plasma, allowing it to retain hydrogen ions added by the neutral beam without expelling others. This led to a substantial increase in plasma density and further underscores the potential of liquid lithium in fusion technology.

Implementing liquid lithium walls in larger tokamaks poses significant obstacles in terms of cost and technical complexity. To confidently incorporate this technology into future versions of NSTX-U, Majeski stresses the importance of conducting exploratory experiments at a smaller scale. These experiments, such as LTX-β, play a crucial role in further understanding the capabilities and limitations of liquid lithium.

As fusion continues to be a promising solution to meet the growing energy demands of the world, researchers at PPPL are at the forefront of advancing fusion technology. Liquid lithium’s proven ability to enhance plasma performance, improve heat confinement, and increase plasma density brings us closer to harnessing fusion as a reliable and sustainable energy source. With ongoing research and development, the potential benefits of fusion power can become a reality, revolutionizing the energy landscape and reducing our dependence on fossil fuels.

Science

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