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Scientists achieve astonishingly high temperatures with breakthrough compact fusion device: 'The cheapest thermal fusion neutrons out there'

"Compelling innovation economics are vital to launching a commercial fusion product on a timescale that matters."

"Compelling innovation economics are vital to launching a commercial fusion product on a timescale that matters."

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A development in fusion technology could signal the coming of cheap, clean energy. 

Zap Energy's compact device — called the fusion Z-pinch experiment, or FuZe — generated electrons that reached 1-3 kiloelectron volts (about 20-66 million degrees Fahrenheit or 11-37 million degrees Celsius), temperatures as hot as the sun's core, Interesting Engineering reported. It's noteworthy because cooling electrons have held back scientists from producing net power from fusion.

The process requires a confined environment and adequate temperature, pressure, and time to create a gas or plasma so hot that electrons break away from nuclei. 

As the outlet explained it, the nuclei and electrons have very different masses and thus "heat and cool at different rates." That limits the heating of the plasma and creates "a hurdle in the development of fusion reactors."

The International Atomic Energy Agency says that industrial-scale nuclear fusion could "​​provide virtually limitless clean, safe, and affordable energy." It has been explored since the 1930s without ultimate success.

Interesting Engineering pointed out that only a few fusion technologies on Earth can match the temperature of the sun's core of 27 million Fahrenheit and that other devices make use of superconducting magnets or powerful lasers, which are expensive and time-consuming to build — though there has been a breakthrough on that front as well.

"Compelling innovation economics are vital to launching a commercial fusion product on a timescale that matters," Zap Energy CEO and co-founder Benj Conway said in a news release, per Interesting Engineering, calling FuZe "the cheapest thermal fusion neutrons out there." 

Nuclear fusion produces nearly 4 million times as much energy as burning coal or oil, per the IAEA. It would reduce and perhaps eventually eliminate the need for dirty energy from coal, oil, and gas.

Dirty energy sources contribute to the overheating of our planet via toxic pollution that surrounds Earth like a blanket — and increase the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events such as droughts and floods.

Zap Energy is a spinoff of the Department of Energy's Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy and the University of Washington. It channels electric currents through plasma filaments to generate electromagnetic fields that heat and compress it, per Interesting Engineering.

To solve the problem of "short-lived" plasmas and develop this potentially world-saving tech, the company applied "a dynamic flow through the plasma, a process called sheared-flow stabilization."

"The dynamics are a wonderful balancing act of plasma physics," vice president of research and development Ben Levitt said. "As we climb to higher and higher plasma currents, we optimize the sweet spot where the temperature, density, and lifetime of the Z pinch align to form a stable, high-performance fusing plasma."

The startup has even bigger plans on the horizon: Its next fusion device, called Fuze-Q, has 10 times as much energy capacity as FuZe.

In the meantime, we can turn to technologies that are decidedly less pie-in-the-sky but still sexy, such as solarpanels, to cool things down.

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