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Stellarators open up a whole new 3D world for MAST | 24/01/2013
Getting a complete picture of how plasmas perform in MAST has just become easier – thanks to expertise borrowed from a very different type of fusion machine.
The tokamak is not the only route to fusion power. Scientists around the world are looking at other methods of bringing the stars down to earth, and one of the main alternatives is known as a stellarator.
The stellarator, like the tokamak, uses magnetic fields to control hot plasmas in which fusion reactions can be created to produce energy. Where it differs is in the way these fields are created. To confine the plasma, it is necessary to put a twist in the magnetic field. The tokamak drives an electric current through the plasma to produce this twist. With the stellarator, the twist is provided by twisted magnetic coils outside of the plasma. Stellarators have been around for longer than tokamaks, dating back to the early 1950s, but the challenges of building such intricate machines have slowed progress. However, the construction of the advanced W 7-X stellarator at Greifswald in Germany (pictured above) is set to change all that, with assembly due for completion in 2015.
There is some crossover between the two paths. Both tokamaks and stellarators are part of the European Fusion Development Agreement's research programme. And physicists working on the MAST tokamak at Culham are taking advantage of computer codes written by stellarator researchers to develop 3D plasma models. Computerised models allow scientists to match theories about plasma behaviour to real experiments. The new 3D models give a much fuller understanding of what is happening inside the plasma than the 2D versions that have been used up till now, in analysing the results of experiments where extra external magnetic coils are applied to the plasma. CCFE theoretical physicist Christopher Ham explains:
“MAST has a plasma with a ‘cored apple' shape. If you imagine slicing the apple open you can only see its condition at that one cross-section, and not in the rest of it. That is what it is like working with 2D codes. They are still essential for what we do and they have provided important insights, but now we need to look at 3D properties of the plasma too. The plasma isn't symmetrical the whole way round; it shifts and tilts in different points. Capturing these changes tells us more about how to keep plasma stable inside MAST. That's why 3D models are important.”
Luckily, it is not as difficult as you might think to transfer the complicated mathematics of stellarators to tokamaks. Once the differences in geometry have been accounted for, they translate well. Researcher Tony Cooper of Switzerland's CRPP institute has already adapted the VMEC stellarator code – which produces plasma models like the one opposite – to a number of tokamaks, including MAST.
“Stellarators are naturally 3D in nature, and codes like VMEC have been written to map this,” continues Christopher Ham. “So it makes sense to use these ready-made codes, which have been tried and tested over 30 years, for devices like MAST. Without them we'd be starting from scratch, which would be a massive effort. The expertise of our friends in stellarator research is saving us a lot of time and trouble.”
Christopher and colleagues Ian Chapman and Samuli Saarelma have taken on Tony Cooper's initial work and find it is already opening up new possibilities. One example is the study of Edge Localised Modes (ELMs), harmful instabilities that take energy out of the plasma, impeding the tokamak's performance. MAST has special magnetic coils that control ELMs by changing the magnetic field at the plasma edge. 3D modelling can show what effect the coils are having in all regions of the machine.
“Often we want to know why a particular coil configuration does what it does,” says Christopher Ham. “How does the edge of the plasma move in and out as you go around MAST? And how does this change the stability? These are questions we can only answer in 3D.”
An added benefit has been the chance to forge stronger links with the stellarator community – Christopher has been working particularly closely with counterparts in Germany and the United States.
“There is increasing interest in working together internationally,” he says. “I hope this continues – we can learn a lot from each other, and in the end fusion research will be the winner.”
Top: The W 7-X stellarator under construction (courtesy IPP)
Middle: A 3D stellarator plasma model produced by the VMEC code (courtesy of VMEC Wiki/PPPL)
Bottom: An image of a MAST plasma with an ELM instability