FAMU Winning Race Toward Reproducing Sun's Energy

Mar 7, 2013

The Spheromak Fusion Reactor at Florida A&M University's Center for Plasma Science and Technology
Credit Thomas Andrew Gustafson

Florida A&M University’s Center for Plasma Science and Technology isn’t focused on collecting solar power but making it. In July 2012 the Center’s fusion reactor reached the first phase toward duplicating what happens on the surface of the sun.

FAMU’s fusion reactor is locked behind three doors in a large dust-free, clutter-free garage. About the size of an office cubicle, the squat aluminum cylinder topped with a copper tower is far from intimidating. Its potential, on the other hand, is downright scary. The little guy named Spheromak is on a roll, having reached the first phase – called first plasma – toward generating an extreme amount of energy last summer. But what does that mean and why is that exciting?

“That means basically that the vacuum is working to a certain extent. That means that the capacitor banks are firing, that the electron gun is properly firing and getting the plasma in the chamber. So I’d say we’re probably half way to getting the spheromak plasma now. But we know the machine is capable of doing that,” says the Center’s Director, Dr. Charles Weatherford.

In other words, all systems are a go. Partially. There are still some hurdles to cross and Dr. Weatherford projects a year before they reach the second phase when the plasma takes the right shape of a spheromak sphere – that’s what the machine is named after.

“A phenomenon occurs in these machines called magnetic reconnection. That’s where you get, basically, spontaneous lightning bolts inside the machine. And what it does is, it sorta depletes the spheromatic shape of the plasma,” Weatherford says.

To counter that, the center applied for a grant with the U.S Department of Energy to purchase a microwave generator to stop the lightning. But even then, the idea of producing the mass amounts of energy projected is, Dr. Weatherford says, about five years out. Though he thinks when the time comes, it could change not just the city of Tallahassee, but the state of Florida and even the United States of America in a big way.

“If this machine would actually produce power it would be revolutionary. And we think it’s possible to do it, but there’s a lot of work to be done. For example, a machine like this might power, say, half of Tallahassee, and if you had two of them here, it might power the entire city and county,” Weatherford says.

You heard that right. Five years for half of Tallahassee’s power. Oh, and it’s quite clean compared to the fission nuclear power plants in use already.

“The by-products of this, if we ever start producing energy, will just have half-lives of several hundreds of years and they won’t be that dangerous. We can deal with them. The half-lives of these fission products from these fission power plants are, you know, a hundred-thousand years,” Weatherford says.

Originally, the center’s fusion reactor was built as a way to work out the kinks of fusion power for the soon-to-be-operational, much larger, internationally funded, ITER project. That’s an effort in France to build one giant fusion reactor capable of powering a region the size of the entire Southeastern United States. But Dr. Weatherford believes, what the center has going may actually end up being the better option.

“This machine was built for a million dollars. And ITER, you’re talking about billions, billions of dollars over there. So it’s just much cheaper. In the long run, it’s going to be less expensive to maintain, less expensive to buy the parts,” Weatherford says.

But the funding for machines like Spheromak is minimal.

“Magnetic fusion is almost being shut down in this county in favor of the big ITER machine that a lot of people think is a huge mistake because there’s a lot we can learn, a lot of physics we can learn from this, a lot of physics of plasmas that we can learn from this, and I think the government’s made a huge mistake and I think they’re beginning to realize that,” Weatherford says.

And bigger than ITER and the lack of funding, the biggest issue facing the center right now appears to be manpower. The majority of the team are FAMU undergraduate students -- not that that’s a problem, but numbers are low. Dr. Weatherford says, what they really need are more students to help out.

“The main limitation, to be honest with you right now, is manpower. We need graduate students. We need undergraduates to come here and work on this machine and we can support them with fellowships and research internships. So if there’s anything I want to say, the students need to come and work on this machine. That’s what we need,” Weatherford says.

So for now, Weatherford says, they’ll keep pressing on, teaching the students they have: building up the small fusion workforce. And maybe even create fusion power along the way.