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Twisty reactor hints at a future of practical fusion power

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Many fusion reactors are based on a tokamak design, which uses an electrical current to twist a superheated plasma's electrons and ions into a three-dimensional loop. That's good for containing the plasma, but it's still not the safest design -- if the current fails or there's a magnetic disruption, you have a serious problem on your hands. However, scientists at the Max Planck Institute may have a more practical alternative. They've recently completed Wendelstein 7-X, the first large reactor based on a stellarator concept that relies on a cruller-like shape for the twisting action instead of a current. That's considerably safer than a tokamak, and the supercomputer-guided design should iron out the containment problems that have plagued stellarators until now.

W7-X isn't live yet. The team is waiting on German approval to activate the reactor, which could start running in November. If it works as promised, though, it could do a lot to advance fusion energy. It would prove that stellarators are better than tokamaks for commercial-grade power plants, where you want to eliminate any significant chance of an accident. There's still the not-so-small matter of getting fusion reactors to produce more energy than they consume, but safety might not be a major issue from here on out.

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