Plasma & Fusion

What is a plasma?

Plasma is one of the fundamental states of matter (the others being solid, liquid, and gas). A plasma can be created by heating a gas to temperatures above 10’000ºC, or by subjecting it to a strong electromagnetic field, stripping away electrons from atoms.

Plasma physics is currently being conducted at an exciting period. In the field of fusion, the construction of ITER is in full swing; the ITER research program will pave the way for the building of the demonstration power reactor DEMO. Research on the plasma surrounding the Earth’s magnetosphere is at a turning point; satellites are providing us with measurements that were unthinkable a few years ago. More missions are being planned with the goal of studying some of the most intriguing plasma turbulence phenomena in the solar wind, an ideal plasma physics laboratory found in nature. Observations of the Sun, including those of coronal mass ejections, and of more distant objects, like extragalactic jets, are leading to increasingly refined theoretical modelling and simulations. The use of plasma processing by industry is increasing continuously; the market of plasma-aided manufactured products has reached the order of a hundred billion euros annually. Other more innovative applications for plasmas are emerging continuously and grow rapidly. In particular, plasma medicine, a field at the cross road of plasma physics, life sciences, and clinical medicine is becoming an area of intense progress.

While research on plasma physics at the Swiss Plasma Center is mostly focused on fusion, we also work towards the understanding of basic physics phenomenon that have an impact on the dynamics of space and astrophysical plasmas and we pursue research in the field of industrial plasma applications.

What is fusion?

Fusion is based on the principle that powers the Sun and all stars in the universe, and it has the potential to provide a solution to the world’s energy problem. Fusion is intrinsically safe, provides the largest energy density of all energy production principles, uses fuels that are practically inexhaustible and well distributed geographically, requires little use of land, does not depend on weather conditions, does not produce greenhouse gases, does not require geological storage of long-lived radioactive waste, and has no impact on weapons proliferation issues.

Fusion energy can be obtained by heating hydrogen to 100 million degrees Celsius or above. At this extremely high temperature, the hydrogen nuclei can overcome the strong electric force that pushes them apart and come close enough for the strong nuclear force, the force that binds protons and neutrons together, to act. This force pulls the nuclei together, fusing them into a heavier nucleus. This reaction releases an amount of energy per unit mass that is 10 million times higher than in conventional combustion.

When will fusion happen?

The European fusion community, now organized in a consortium called EUROfusion, has developed a roadmap that aims at providing electricity to the grid from fusion by 2050. The main elements of this roadmap are ITER, presently under construction in Cadarache, France, which will demonstrate the scientific and technological feasibility of fusion, and DEMO, the step following ITER, aimed at proving that commercial deployment of fusion is possible. Similar elements characterise also the roadmaps to fusion electricity in other ITER partners, such as China, Korea, India and Japan. In Europe, in parallel with ITER and in preparation of DEMO, a few selected devices are considered essential in addressing crucial research and development issues as well as for the education of the ITER and DEMO physicists and engineers. The TCV tokamak at the Swiss Plasma Center is one of them.