Science Made Simple: What Is Burning Plasma?

Sun Close Up

The Sun is an enormous ball of burning plasma involving a fusion reaction known as the proton-proton chain. In the core of the Sun, self-heating of hydrogen ions (protons) sustains the temperature of the ions above the level required for fusion to occur.

Sustained, ongoing fusion reactions like those in our Sun rely on burning plasmas. Plasma, one of the four fundamental states of matter, consists of a gas of ions and free electrons. A burning plasma is one in which most of the plasma heating comes from fusion reactions involving thermal plasma ions. In the Sun, those fusion reactions involve hydrogen ions. The high temperatures needed to sustain fusion reactions are maintained by the “self-heating” process in which energy from the fusion reaction heats the thermal plasma ions via particle collisions. A plasma enters what scientists call the burning plasma regime when the self-heating power exceeds any external heating.

Many new scientific challenges await scientists at the frontiers of burning plasma science including understanding and controlling a strongly coupled, self-organized plasma; management of heat and particles that reach plasma-facing surfaces; demonstration of fuel breeding technology; and the physics of energetic particles. The ITER tokamak will be the first magnetic confinement experiment to explore these burning plasma issues. Fusion scientists and engineers at ITER will investigate the physics, engineering, and technologies associated with self-heating plasma. These issues are all critical to ITER’s broader goal of using self-heating plasma reactions to become the first fusion energy device that produces more power than it consumes, a massive step toward commercial fusion power production.

Burning Plasma Facts

  • The Sun is a burning plasma that has reached “ignition,” meaning the Sun’s plasma temperature is maintained solely by energy released from fusion. The Sun has been burning hydrogen for 4.5 billion years and is about halfway through its life cycle.
  • To reach fusion-relevant temperatures, the ITER tokamak will heat plasmas using three methods. Ohmic heating involves heat generated by resistance to the plasma current, much like how the coils in a toaster heat up. Neutral particle beam injection involves heating the plasma by injecting high-energy particles into the tokamak. High-frequency electromagnetic radiation involves heating the plasma by transferring energy from electromagnetic radiation to particles in the plasma.

DOE Office of Science: Contributions to Burning Plasma Science

The Department of Energy provides significant support to research and development relating to burning plasmas. DOE research activities are managed under the Fusion Energy Sciences (FES) program within the DOE Office of Science. The FES program supports the U.S. Burning Plasma Organization (USBPO). The USBPO is a national organization of FES-funded scientists and engineers involved in researching the properties of magnetically confined burning fusion plasmas. DOE also supports construction of the international ITER project through the FES program and the U.S. ITER Project Office. The ITER facility will be capable of accessing the burning plasma regime and aims to produce 500 MW of fusion power for 400 seconds with self-heating power levels that exceed external heating power by a factor of two.

3 Comments on "Science Made Simple: What Is Burning Plasma?"

  1. This is a great publication, I have witnessed global warming threw my life it’s very sutle how things have changed, if we can obtain nuclear fusion their maybe hope for us, other world’s are to far away to get too so for now we should attempt to create a new form of energy on earth.

  2. Emmanuel Mandaraig | February 15, 2022 at 6:22 am | Reply

    fusion energy reactor for limitless power supply and energy

  3. Why stop there – lets make a mini big bang here on earth. We would have a universe of energy in 30 years…. Yes snark but the present requires us to Keep it simple – stupid. Why else is green renewables so much more appealing to many. Oil is killing us and our world, nuclear is not much better. In my opinion. Exploiting finite resources for profit or vanity is all i see. Damm im becoming such a pessimist. Nature does all these things in front of our eyes with zero negative affects. Clean water air food and the earth should be the goal. Or only a few will benefit.

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