A Fusion Reactor Powered by Plasma: Cheap, Safe, and Clean

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A plasma lamp shows the unique properties of plasma. Photo courtesy of Luc Viatour

A reader asked, “Is there a specific temperature that plasma could not exceed, or would increasing heat create stronger plasma?

So, let’s talk about plasma. What is it? Plasma is different from solids, liquids and gases; some say that it is the fourth state of matter.

Actually, plasma consists of free moving electrons and atomic nuclei. Like gas, plasma has no definite shape or volume but this is where the comparison ends. It can be highly charged and accelerated, moved, by electromagnetic fields.

There must be energy applied to strip electrons from their nucleons to make plasma.

The energy can come from various sources such as light, electrical and thermal. If the continuous flow of energy ceases then the plasma state will recombine to form natural gas, the cool, electrically neutral state.

Plasma Uses

Dubbed the most abundant phase of matter, since it makes up over 99% of the visible universe, plasma has many uses here on earth, as well. Neon signs, fusion energy, plasma TV’s, lightning, fluorescent lamps, electric arc, etching, and tesla coils are a few things we can use and see.

Plasma Temperature

Plasma temperature, typically measured in Kelvin, ranges widely. In its crystalline state, plasma can approach absolute zero Kelvin. In contrast, some plasmas, the center of a star for example, can range to 107 Kelvin and more.

In order for plasma to exist, ionization is necessary – this occurs when atoms lose or gain electrons, and become charged. Temperature is largely responsible for this phenomenon. One primary area of research in the understanding of plasma physics, and thus over 99% of the visible universe, is fusion energy.

Plasma Temp vs Electron Density: Photo Courtesy of Jafet vixle

Plasma and Fusion Energy

Fusion powers stars – this includes our own sun. Science understands the process of fusion: fusing two hydrogen atoms to form helium, and the release of energy that follows, all accomplished under the right conditions. This source of energy would naturally lend itself to experimentation on Earth, but the exploration of fusion energy is a scientific challenge more arduous than any other we face today. We have yet to even achieve the point where the amount of energy put into the reaction equals the energy extracted. Then, why continue? The payoff, once the process has been mastered, is huge, as fusion will result in an inexhaustible form of energy with no pollution.  Who wouldn’t want virtually unlimited, cheap, and clean electricity? So, despite the difficulties, fusion experiments abound across the world.

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