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South Korean nuclear reactor breaks record

South Korean nuclear reactor breaks record

South Korea's 'artificial sun' recently achieved a groundbreaking feat in fusion energy research by successfully maintaining a plasma circuit at a staggering 180 million degrees Fahrenheit (equivalent to 100 million degrees Celsius) for an impressive 48 seconds, as reported by scientists . This remarkable achievement was made possible by the commissioning of the Korea Advanced Research Superconducting Tokamak Reactor (KSTAR), surpassing the previous world record of 31 seconds set in 2021. The significant progress marked by this achievement represents significant progress towards the ultimate goal of developing a sustainable, non-renewable energy source. Almost limited to clean energy, though, it's just a small step in the grand scheme of things.

The scientific community has long been engaged in the quest to unleash the potential of nuclear fusion, a process similar to the energy generation mechanism in stars, spanning more than seven decades of dedicated research and experiments. The basic principle involves fusing hydrogen atoms to produce helium under conditions of extreme heat and pressure, mirroring the transformational process observed in main sequence stars that radiate light and heat while avoiding the production of greenhouse gases or long-lived radioactive waste. However, simulating the complex conditions prevailing in stellar cores represents an enormous challenge for researchers.

The prevailing design paradigm for nuclear fusion reactors, known as tokamak, is based on the concept of extremely hot plasma — a distinct state of matter characterized by the free movement of positive ions and negatively charged electrons — confined to a torus-shaped reactor vessel that uses strong magnetism. fields. The main obstacle was the arduous task of stabilizing the superheated, turbulent plasma coils long enough to facilitate nuclear fusion reactions. The tokamak's beginnings date back to 1958 with the pioneering work of Soviet scientist Natan Yavlinsky; However, the elusive goal of net-zero energy gains remains unachieved to this day.

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One critical hurdle was managing the plasma at temperatures conducive to fusion reactions, which requires extremely high thermal limits that exceed even the scorching heat of the Sun. Fusion reactors require operating temperatures far exceeding those found in stellar cores because lower pressures are needed compared to normal fusion conditions inside stars. For example, the Sun's core registers temperatures of about 27 million degrees Fahrenheit (15 million degrees Celsius) while enduring pressures roughly 340 billion times the atmospheric pressure at sea level on Earth.

Cooking plasma at these extreme temperatures is a task that may seem relatively simple, but the real challenge is finding a way to effectively contain it in the reactor. This containment must be achieved without allowing the plasma to burn through the reactor walls, while ensuring that the fusion process proceeds smoothly. The technical complexities involved in this project are very complex and require sophisticated solutions. Traditionally, this containment is performed using high-energy lasers or strong magnetic fields, each of which has unique advantages and limitations.

To extend the duration of the plasma burning phase beyond the previous achievement, the researchers made a series of modifications to the reactor configuration. These changes included replacing carbon components with tungsten, a change aimed at improving the performance of tokamak inverters. These converters play a crucial role in removing excess heat and by-products from the reactor, thus improving its overall efficiency.

Si-Woo Yeon, director of the KSTAR Research Center, stressed the importance of careful testing and preparation to achieve the remarkable results of the experiment. Despite the experimental nature of using the new tungsten converters, extensive evaluation of the hardware and careful planning allowed the researchers to exceed performance metrics from previous endeavors conducted at the facility.

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Looking to the future, KSTAR scientists have set ambitious goals for the reactor, aiming to maintain temperatures of 180 million degrees Fahrenheit for 300 seconds by 2026. This goal represents a major advance in fusion research and highlights the dedication of the combined scientists to advances in this field.

The KSTAR team's recent success adds to a series of notable achievements achieved by many nuclear fusion reactors around the world. Among these noteworthy achievements is the one achieved by the US National Ignition Facility, where the reactor core briefly demonstrated that energy output exceeded the input – an event that attracted a great deal of attention and praise within and outside the scientific community.