Skip to Content

Experimental Fusion Reactor Switched On in Germany

The Wendelstein 7-X reactor is latest in a global push to build a practical reactor that harnesses the power of the stars.
February 3, 2016

Scientists in Germany today switched on a new kind of nuclear reactor, the latest experiment in the quest to produce clean, sustainable power from controlled nuclear fusion.

Chancellor Angela Merkel flipped the switch on the Wendelstein 7-X, a $435 million, doughnut-shaped apparatus built at the Max Planck Institute for Particle Physics in Greifswald. Hydrogen was injected into the device, superheated by microwaves until it became type of matter known as plasma for a fraction of a second.

Smashing hydrogen nuclei together releases huge amounts of heat—this is how the sun works—and not much radioactive byproduct. But despite decades of research, nobody has yet produced more energy from fusion reaction experiments than the energy put in.

The experimental "stellarator" fusion reactor Wendelstein 7-X under construction.

Still, interest in fusion power is growing worldwide. A number of commercial and research efforts have made recent incremental achievements. And new corporate players have come into the mix, including an effort by Lockheed Martin.

Most efforts try to contain hot plasma within strong electric currents, using a doughnut-shaped device called a tokamak. The world’s largest tokamak is under construction in France at an international facility known as ITER that might cost $50 billion when completed.

Commercial players are exploring all kinds of exotic setups. Tri-Alpha, a company based near Irvine, California, is testing a linear-shaped reactor. Helion Energy of Redmond, Washington, is trying to use a combination of compression and magnetic confinement, while General Fusion, based in Vancouver, British Columbia, tries to control plasma using pistons to compress molten lead and lithium. The mixture also acts as a coolant that can be circulated to generate electricity through conventional steam generators and turbines.

These efforts are all many years away from providing meaningful amounts of electricity, as is the reactor that was tested today in Greifswald. Its design is something different again. Though similar in shape to a tokamak, it uses a complex system of magnetic currents to do the confinement. It is known, fittingly, as a stellarator.

Keep Reading

Most Popular

mouse engineered to grow human hair
mouse engineered to grow human hair

Going bald? Lab-grown hair cells could be on the way

These biotech companies are reprogramming cells to treat baldness, but it’s still early days.

Death and Jeff Bezos
Death and Jeff Bezos

Meet Altos Labs, Silicon Valley’s latest wild bet on living forever

Funders of a deep-pocketed new "rejuvenation" startup are said to include Jeff Bezos and Yuri Milner.

ai learning to multitask concept
ai learning to multitask concept

Meta’s new learning algorithm can teach AI to multi-task

The single technique for teaching neural networks multiple skills is a step towards general-purpose AI.

conceptual illustration showing various women's faces being scanned
conceptual illustration showing various women's faces being scanned

A horrifying new AI app swaps women into porn videos with a click

Deepfake researchers have long feared the day this would arrive.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.