Earl Scime, Eberly Distinguished Professor of Physics and chair of the physics department at West Virginia University, wants to build a star on earth and harness its power as electricity. As part of that goal, he is building a diagnostics tool for magnetically confined fusion experiments.

Toward that end, a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy for $462,429 is enabling Scime to build and conduct a spheromak turbulent plasma experiment in cooperation with Florida A&M University and Auburn University.

Fusion is a thermonuclear reaction in which the nuclei of light atoms join to form nuclei of heavier atoms. Since the final mass is less than the mass of the original parts, the fusion of light nuclei is accompanied by the release of large quantities of energy. Nuclear fusion powers all the visible stars in the universe.

A spheromak is a magnetic fusion device. WVU’s role in the project is to design, fabricate and test a number of magnetic sense coils that will measure the fluctuations of the magnetic field in the spheromak device. The work also includes design and fabrication of the electronics.

In the last few decades, scientists have successfully obtained more energy out of a fusion experiment than the amount of energy they put into it.

However, that energy must be converted into electricity, to both power the experiment and contribute to the electrical grid.

“A successful fusion energy experiment will require a good way to convert the fusion energy into electricity and to do so in a long-term way; meaning not for seconds but for weeks and months at a time,” Scime said.

“Given the losses associated with converting the nuclear energies released in fusion into electricity, fusion experiments need to generate perhaps ten times as much as energy as what it took to create the fusion plasma,” he added.

“Some key unresolved issues involve the heating of plasmas and the effects of turbulence in the plasma. This particular experiment is designed to explore both issues and improve our understanding of them at a fundamental level.”

Scientists in Europe, South Korea, Russia, Japan and other countries around the globe have been putting resources, time and money into fusion research.

Scime hopes this close collaboration with Florida A & M, a Historically Black College, will bring a more diverse pool of students to WVU for graduate school and also encourage post-doctoral students and faculty to consider coming to Morgantown.

Florida A&M graduates more African-American doctoral candidates in physics than all of the other universities with doctoral programs in physics in the nation combined.

“This is a great way to build a relationship with an impressive university and bring diversity, new ideas and a new generation of physicists into this field,” Scime said.


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