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Converting “empty” to endless

How does a void produce something virtually infinite? The answer comes from a technology built on nothing.

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A nuclear fusion device that was under construction for more than a decade and cost €1 billion to build made a test run on December 10, 2015 in Greifswald, Germany. The largest of its kind ever created, the Wendelstein 7-X stellarator, developed by the Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics, was designed as a climate-friendly power plant that, like the sun, derives its energy from the fusion of atomic nuclei.

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The Wendelstein 7-X reactor is one of the world’s largest fusion devices based on the stellarator concept, developed by the Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics (IPP). The Wendelstein 7-X is designed to investigate if it is possible to contain plasma so as to enable continuous operation of the reactor. The vacuum chamber is an essential component of the system with a major radius of 5.5 meters. Image Credit: Max-Planck-Institut für Plasmaphysik

Vacuum systems played a central role in this groundbreaking initiative. In fact, many components of the project’s vacuum requirements—including high vacuum, forevacuum, cryogenics, and leak detectors—have been employed at the Max Planck Institute’s research facilities since the project’s inception.

At the core of the generator is a ring of 70 superconducting solenoids (tightly wound coils) that stand 3.5 meters high and are encased within an annular steel shell. In the initial test, scientists fed one milligram of helium gas into an evacuated plasma vessel and ignited the first plasma in the ring using vacuum technology. Their success set the stage for simulation of nuclear fusion of hydrogen nuclei, the next step in determining the plant’s capacity, through fusion of hydrogen isotopes, to generate clean and virtually limitless energy.

These achievements (among many others) and the technologies that brought them to fruition could not exist without the inclusion of a vacuum component in their production processes. Oerlikon Leybold Vacuum continues to partner on innovative projects in the area of Research and Development.

By Randy B. Hecht

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