If you’ve been following our posts, you should now know quite a bit about fusion, what a plasma is and how one contains it.
The discussion has concentrated on one particular type of fusion, namely magnetic confinement fusion. Today we will briefly mention two others, inertial confinement fusion (ICF) and gravitational confinement fusion.
Gravitational confinement fusion is, in fact, what all stars do, including our sun. They hold the plasma using the gravitational force. As you would expect, you need an enormous amount of mass to be able to hold a plasma using this force, and hence it is not something we can use on earth. Solar panels could be considered as a very small collector for a gravitational fusion reactor (our sun). Look up Dyson sphere to see what taking that to the extreme could look like.
Inertial confinement fusion is a bit of a misnomer, because in this type of fusion you do not make any attempt to confine your fuel at all. You instead arrange your reaction such that it travels through your fuel faster than your fuel is being blown away. This is, in many ways, exactly how an exploding bomb works; in inertial confinement fusion we make the “bomb” very small (millimetres in radius). We then want to explode many of these small bombs per second in our reactor vessel and harvest the energy that they collectively emit. An early version of this idea was, in fact, to explode hydrogen bombs in a huge cavern underground. The advent of lasers allowed for the miniaturisation of the “bomb” and the birth of ICF.
Inertial confinement fusion is an area of active research, although some consider it to be a bit less mature than magnetic confinement fusion. We will thus continue concentrating on magnetic confinement fusion in our subsequent posts.
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