If you’ve heard of fusion energy, you’ve probably heard of tokamaks. These doughnut-shaped devices are meant to cage ionized gases called plasmas in magnetic fields while heating them to the outlandish temperatures needed for hydrogen nuclei to fuse. Tokamaks are the workhorses of fusion—solid, symmetrical, and relatively straightforward to engineer—but progress with them has been plodding.
Now, tokamaks’ rebellious cousin is stepping out of the shadows. In a gleaming research lab in Germany’s northeastern corner, researchers are preparing to switch on a fusion device called a stellarator, the largest ever built. The €1 billion machine, known as Wendelstein 7-X (W7-X), appears now as a 16-meter-wide ring of gleaming metal bristling with devices of all shapes and sizes, innumerable cables trailing off to unknown destinations, and technicians tinkering with it here and there. It looks a bit like Han Solo’s Millennium Falcon, towed in for repairs after a run-in with the Imperial fleet. Inside are 50 6-tonne magnet coils, strangely twisted as if trampled by an angry giant.
Although stellarators are similar in principle to tokamaks, they have long been dark horses in fusion energy research because tokamaks are better at keeping gas trapped and holding on to the heat needed to keep reactions ticking along. But the Dali-esque devices have many attributes that could make them much better prospects for a commercial fusion power plant: Once started, stellarators naturally purr along in a steady state, and they don’t spawn the potentially metal-bending magnetic disruptions that plague tokamaks. Unfortunately, they are devilishly hard to build, making them perhaps even more prone to cost overruns and delays than other fusion projects. “No one imagined what it means” to build one, says Thomas Klinger, leader of the German effort.
W7-X could mark a turning point. The machine, housed at a branch of the Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics (IPP) that Klinger directs, is awaiting regulatory approval for a startup in November. It is the first large-scale example of a new breed of supercomputer-designed stellarators that have had most of their containment problems computed out. If W7-X matches or beats the performance of a similarly sized tokamak, fusion researchers may have to reassess the future course of their field. “Tokamak people are waiting to see what happens. There’s an excitement around the world about W7-X,” says engineer David Anderson of the University of Wisconsin (UW), Madison.