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Episode 630

ZETA (fusion reactor)
Fri, 2019-Jan-25 00:19 UTC
Length - 3:42

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Welcome to featured Wiki of the Day where we read the summary of the featured Wikipedia article every day.

The featured article for Friday, 25 January 2019 is ZETA (fusion reactor).

ZETA, short for "Zero Energy Thermonuclear Assembly", was a major experiment in the early history of fusion power research. Based on the pinch plasma confinement technique, and built at the Atomic Energy Research Establishment in England, ZETA was larger and more powerful than any fusion machine in the world at that time. Its goal was to produce large numbers of fusion reactions, although it was not large enough to produce net energy.

ZETA went into operation in August 1957 and by the end of the month it was giving off bursts of about a million neutrons per pulse. Measurements suggested the fuel was reaching between 1 and 5 million kelvins, a temperature that would produce nuclear fusion reactions, explaining the quantities of neutrons being seen. Early results were leaked to the press in September 1957, and the following January an extensive review was released. Front-page articles in newspapers around the world announced it as a breakthrough towards unlimited energy, a scientific advance for Britain greater than the recently launched Sputnik had been for the Soviet Union.

US and Soviet experiments had also given off similar neutron bursts at temperatures that were not high enough for fusion. This led Lyman Spitzer to express his scepticism of the results, but his comments were dismissed by UK observers as jingoism. Further experiments on ZETA showed that the original temperature measurements were misleading; the bulk temperature was too low for fusion reactions to create the number of neutrons being seen. The claim that ZETA had produced fusion had to be publicly withdrawn, an embarrassing event that cast a chill over the entire fusion establishment. The neutrons were later explained as being the product of instabilities in the fuel. These instabilities appeared inherent to any similar design, and work on the basic pinch concept as a road to fusion power ended by 1961.

In spite of ZETA's failure to achieve fusion, the device went on to have a long experimental lifetime and produced numerous important advances in the field. In one line of development, the use of lasers to more accurately measure the temperature was tested on ZETA, and was later used to confirm the results of the Soviet tokamak approach. In another, while examining ZETA test runs it was noticed that the plasma self-stabilised after the power was turned off. This has led to the modern reversed field pinch concept. More generally, studies of the instabilities in ZETA have led to several important theoretical advances that form the basis of modern plasma theory.

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