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Powering the Future with Everyday Metals

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Fusion energy has been in the news for the last couple of years, and the scientific fraternity is buzzing about futuristic reactors. But behind the scenes, some of the most common metals are quietly enabling fusion's leap from lab to grid. Tungsten, copper, and lithium—elements we interact with daily—are proving indispensable in the quest for limitless clean energy.

Tungsten Tokamak WEST Sets 6-Minute Fusion Record

In a major milestone for fusion energy, the WEST (tungsten (W) Environment in Steady-state Tokamak) device in France has set a new record. WEST maintained a fusion plasma at 50 million degrees Celsius for six minutes, injecting 1.15 gigajoules of power. This achievement doubles the plasma density and delivers 15% more energy than WEST's previous record.

WEST is operated by the French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission (CEA). It is part of the IAEA's Coordination on International Challenges on Long Duration OPeration (CICLOP) program. The U.S. Department of Energy's Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) has a long partnership with WEST and CICLOP.

“We need to deliver a new source of energy, and the source should be continuous and permanent. These are beautiful results. We have reached a stationary regime despite being in a challenging environment due to this tungsten wall.”

– CEA scientist and CICLOP chair Xavier Litaudon

Fusion Basics

Nuclear Fusion

Fusion powers the sun and stars. It occurs when light elements like hydrogen are heated to extremely high temperatures, forming plasma. In this state, the plasma particles collide and fuse, releasing large amounts of energy.

On Earth, fusion devices called tokamaks use powerful magnetic fields to confine the plasma in a donut-shaped chamber. The objective is to achieve a self-sustaining fusion reaction that generates more energy than is put in, potentially providing a virtually limitless, safe, carbon-free energy source.

However, maintaining these reactions long enough to extract net energy remains a significant challenge. The plasma must be heated to temperatures hotter than the sun's core and kept stable for long periods. Unlike most tokamaks, which use carbon inner walls that retain too much fuel to be reactor-viable, alternative materials are being explored.

WEST's Tungsten Walls: A Reactor-Relevant Advance

WEST is lined with tungsten, a leading candidate for future fusion reactors. Tungsten retains far less fuel than carbon, which is a necessity for efficient reactor operation. However, even if tungsten is traced in the plasma, it can rapidly cool through radiation. Luis Delgado-Aparicio of PPPL explains:

“The tungsten-wall environment is far more challenging than using carbon. This is, simply, the difference between trying to grab your kitten at home versus trying to pet the wildest lion.”

Despite the difficulty, WEST's 6-minute record shot with tungsten walls is a major step forward. It's twice as long as the record in WEST's carbon-walled predecessor, Tore Supra. Demonstrating long pulses with reactor-relevant materials is crucial for CICLOP's goals and future power plants.

Novel X-ray Diagnostic Enables Breakthrough

The record-setting shot was diagnosed using an innovative X-ray imaging system developed by PPPL. The multi-energy soft X-ray (ME-SXR) camera, made by DECTRIS, was specially adapted by PPPL to measure plasma properties in unprecedented detail.

“The X-ray group in PPPL's Advanced Projects Department is developing all of these innovative tools for tokamaks and stellarators around the world.”

– Delgado-Aparicio, PPPL's head of advanced projects

Typically, fusion diagnostics use one or two X-ray energy levels. PPPL's ME-SXR takes simultaneous readings at eight energy levels between 11 and 18 kiloelectronvolts (keV). This range provides clear data on the plasma core while excluding interference from radio-frequency heating waves.

The ME-SXR directly measures electron temperatures in the plasma core by comparing intensities at different energies. It also determines the density of tungsten impurities migrating from the walls, which is vital data for optimizing long-pulse operation with metallic walls. According to WEST coordinator Remi Dumont:

“This particular system is the first of this kind with energy discrimination. It is spectacular. Thanks to these new measurements, we will have the ability to measure the tungsten inside the plasma and to understand the transport of tungsten from the wall to the core.”

Record Results Open Doors for Reactor Development

The PPPL team, led by Delgado-Aparicio and researcher Tullio Barbui, found the WEST plasma reached a steady 4-4.5 kilovolts (nearly 50 million°C) in the core throughout the 6-minute shot. Both impurity and temperature profiles remained stable.

WEST Record Figure

These findings were corroborated by advanced simulations from CEA scientists. According to Litaudon:

“This energy-resolving camera will open a new route in terms of analysis. Thanks to these diagnostics, we can understand this problem and go to the root of the physics for both measurement and simulation.”

PPPL and WEST are aiming to improve their control of temperature and tungsten impurities further to enable even longer, more stable operations. Additionally, PPPL is sharing its ME-SXR technology with tokamaks worldwide to accelerate reactor-relevant research. 

“The ME-SXR is only part of a more global contribution of diagnostics from PPPL to CEA/WEST. This collaboration helps us a lot. With this combination of diagnostics, we will be able to perform very accurate measurements in the plasma and control it in real-time.”

– Dumont 

Everyday Metals Powering Fusion: Tungsten, Copper, Lithium

While plasma takes the spotlight, fusion's future also hinges on its more tangible components. Three metals are proving essential: tungsten, copper, and lithium.

Tungsten is prized for its sky-high melting point of 3422°C, the highest of any element. This allows it to withstand the scorching heat of fusion plasmas. China's Xiamen Tungsten Co., Ltd., listed on the Shanghai Stock Exchange, is a top global producer. 

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In 2023, despite an 18.30% decrease in operating revenues to 39.398 billion yuan, the company saw a 10.75% increase in net profit attributable to shareholders, reaching 1.602 billion yuan. Xiamen Tungsten's expansion of production capacities and efficiency enhancements strengthen its position as a key supplier of high-purity tungsten for fusion applications, making it an appealing prospect for investors.

Copper is a linchpin of fusion electronics due to its outstanding electrical and thermal conductivity. Magnetic coils, busbars, and heat exchangers all rely on copper to manage fusion's intense currents and heat. 

Freeport-McMoRan Inc. (FCX), the largest publicly traded copper producer headquartered in the United States, maintained robust financial health in 2023 with revenues of $24.6 billion and a net income of $4.2 billion. The company's extensive copper reserves, commitment to sustainability, and technological advancements bolster its growth prospects, particularly with rising copper demand from renewable energy and electric vehicles.

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Lithium, the lightest metal, is becoming a fusion mainstay due to its remarkable electrochemical potential. Lithium blankets can breed tritium fuel, and lithium batteries can efficiently store fusion power. Albemarle Corporation (ALB), a major lithium producer, reported a record annual revenue of $9.62 billion in 2023, a 31% increase from the previous year. 

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Despite challenges like the EV demand downturn and dropping lithium prices, Albemarle's Energy Storage unit saw impressive 35% volume growth, primarily from its expanded La Negra plant in Chile. The company's focus on cost reduction, financial flexibility, and growth investments position it well in the burgeoning lithium market, though its share price has seen a significant decline over the past year.

As fusion advances, demand for these metals is set to soar. Tungsten, copper, and lithium may lack plasma's flash, but they form the backbone of fusion's bright future. Producers able to supply high-purity materials at scale could see a major boost as the fusion era begins.

Pioneering Partnerships Power Progress

This breakthrough grows from a collaboration between leading fusion institutes. PPPL, a pioneer in plasma diagnostics, developed the ME-SXR with funding from DOE early career and diagnostic development grants. CEA's WEST tokamak, the world's only tungsten-walled device for exploring long-duration shots, provides an ideal testbed.

DECTRIS, a world leader in X-ray detectors, provided core technology that PPPL adapted into the novel ME-SXR. According to DECTRIS Head of Sales Nicolas Pilet:

“The plasma fusion community was among the first to test the hybrid photon counting technology to monitor plasma dynamics. We are incredibly proud to contribute to this development with our products and are thrilled by our excellent collaboration.”

The WEST record is also a triumph for CICLOP, the IAEA's program coordinating global efforts on long-pulse challenges. By combining expertise and resources, CICLOP aims to systematically solve key issues that prevent continuous fusion operations. Litadudon said:

“This milestone represents an important step toward the CICLOP program's goals. PPPL's work at WEST is an excellent example.”

On the Path to Clean Fusion Energy

The WEST 6-minute record with tungsten walls marks significant progress for fusion energy. It validates that tokamaks with reactor-relevant materials can sustainably confine plasma at temperatures necessary for practical fusion power. Novel diagnostics like PPPL's ME-SXR enable researchers to measure and optimize the plasma with unprecedented precision.

There is still much work to be done to develop a viable fusion reactor. Pulse durations need to extend from minutes to months while boosting density and maintaining stability. Advanced materials, magnets, and heat extraction systems are essential. However, scientists are turning fusion's vast potential into reality step by step.

Fusion has the potential to provide a safe, carbon-free, virtually inexhaustible energy source. This could help mitigate climate change, improve energy security, and support the next era of human development. Overall, as WEST and CICLOP show, global collaboration is key to overcoming fusion's challenges and delivering its immense benefits to the world.

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Gaurav started trading cryptocurrencies in 2017 and has fallen in love with the crypto space ever since. His interest in everything crypto turned him into a writer specializing in cryptocurrencies and blockchain. Soon he found himself working with crypto companies and media outlets. He is also a big-time Batman fan.