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As Fusion Science Retrenches, COE Reels in a New Program

Using borrowed equipment, a promising new design and students paid with pizza, the University of Wisconsin-Madison's College of Engineering has landed the nation's first, and so far only, major new fusion program at a university within the past two years.

Known as Pegasus, the three-year, $2.5 million program is funded by the Department of Energy (DOE). It involves the design and construction of a small but innovative fusion reactor prototype capable of generating high-pressure hydrogen gas plasmas, the fuel that drives fusion energy production in a process similar to the one that powers our sun. In the context of the nation's fusion research programs, the grant is relatively small potatoes, according to Nuclear Engineering and Engineering Physics Professor Raymond J. Fonck. But over the past year, Congress slashed funding for the nation's fusion research programs by 40 percent and the DOE, as it redirects fusion research, has been forced to pull the plug on at least seven major fusion programs at universities nationwide.

"We are, we think, the biggest new program at a university in the country," said Fonck. "This is at a time when we are shutting down major programs at national laboratories and universities."

Fusion energy is the same kind of energy created by our sun, where temperatures and pressures are so high atoms fuse together and release enormous amounts of energy. The development of a working, economical fusion reactor is an elusive and long-sought goal of science. Success would mean an environmentally benign, cheap and almost limitless source of new energy.


Tokamak students

Undergraduate students are working with Professor Raymond Fonck to build a tokamak for research on plasma containment. (large image)

The key to the new UW-Madison project's funding success, said Fonck, is an economical, small-scale and innovative reactor design, and a heavy reliance on undergraduate and graduate students to build and operate the device.

The project was born in an earlier unfunded project known as Medusa. In that project, undergraduates, using the castoff equipment of other fusion programs, constructed a tabletop fusion experiment of novel design that was able to produce plasma performance levels of interest even to the sophisticated community of fusion scientists.

"People were amused that we could do this," said Fonck. "It was a small machine and it yielded plasmas that were useful. And it was built almost entirely by a group of bored undergraduates."

The design of Medusa, and now Pegasus, is known to fusion scientists as a "low aspect ratio" design, meaning the hole in the center of the donut- or torus-shaped stainless steel vessel that holds the high-temperature plasma is as small as possible.

"In theory, plasma performance is very sensitive to the size of the hole," Fonck said. "We've come up with a way to make that hole as small as anybody thought possible, and we can do it cheaply."

Shrinking the hole depends on the development of high-stress, high-technology magnets positioned in the middle of the torus. The magnets channel huge amounts of stored energy almost instantaneously into the device to create the fusion plasma.

The supply of magnets for Pegasus is being provided at low cost by the National High-Magnetic Field Laboratory at Florida State University, which sees the project as a testbed for the novel magnets low-aspect ratio fusion devices require.

Pegasus now involves six UW-Madison undergraduates, two graduate students, one full-time scientist, one technician and Fonck. The undergraduates, in addition to working for the pizza Fonck buys out of his own pocket, are now receiving nominal hourly wages for the work they perform. But according to Fonck, they are more motivated by the experience they are gaining from involvement in the innovative project.

It is, Fonck said, an opportunity to work as part of a team and get hands-on experience in a research setting, skills valued by many employers. "The purpose is not to turn everyone into fusion researchers, but to give them experience in real-world problem solving, especially in a team-oriented project" he said.

In the meantime, Fonck said, Pegasus promises to add to the body of knowledge that might one day make fusion energy a reality.