PPPL physicists simulate innovative method for starting up tokamaks without using a solenoid (Nuclear Fusion)

Francesca Poli

PPPL Scientist Francesca Poli. Photo Credit: Elle Starkman / PPPL Office of Communications. PPPL, located on Princeton University’s Forrestal Campus and managed by the University, is devoted to developing practical solutions for the creation of sustainable energy from fusion and to creating new knowledge about the physics of ultra-hot, charged gases known as plasmas.

By Raphael Rosen, PPPL Office of Communications

Scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) have produced self-consistent computer simulations that capture the evolution of an electric current inside fusion plasma without using a central electromagnet, or solenoid.

The computer simulations of the process, known as non-inductive current ramp-up, were performed using TRANSP, the gold-standard code developed at PPPL. The results were published in October 2015 in the journal Nuclear Fusion. The research was supported by the DOE Office of Science.

In traditional donut-shaped tokamaks, a large solenoid runs down the center of the reactor. By varying the electrical current in the solenoid scientists induce a current in the plasma. This current starts up the plasma and creates a second magnetic field that completes the forces that hold the hot, charged gas together.

But spherical tokamaks, a compact variety of fusion reactor that produces high plasma pressure with relatively low magnetic fields, have little room for solenoids. Spherical tokamaks look like cored apples and have a smaller central hole for the solenoid than conventional tokamaks do. Physicists, therefore, have been trying to find alternative methods for producing the current that starts the plasma and completes the magnetic field in spherical tokamaks.

One such method is known as coaxial helicity injection (CHI). During CHI, researchers switch on an electric coil that runs beneath the tokamak. Above this coil is a gap that opens into the tokamak’s vacuum vessel and circles the tokamak’s floor. The switched-on electrical current produces a magnetic field that connects metal plates on either side of the gap.

Researchers next puff gas through the gap and discharge a spark across the two plates. This process causes magnetic reconnection — the process by which the magnetic fields snap apart and reconnect. This reconnection creates a magnetic bubble that fills the tokamak and produces the vital electric current that starts up the plasma and completes the magnetic field.

This current must be nurtured and fed. According to lead author Francesca Poli, the new computer simulations show that the current can best be sustained by injecting high-harmonic radio-frequency waves (HHFWs) and neutral beams into the plasma.

HHFW’s are radio-frequency waves that can heat both electrons and ions. The neutral beams, which consist of streams of hydrogen atoms, become charged when they enter the plasma and interact with the ions. The combination of the HHFWs and neutral beams increases the current from 300 kiloamps to 1 mega amp.

But neither HHFWs nor neutral beams can be used at the start of the process, when the plasma is relatively cool and not very dense. Poli found that HHFWs would be more effective if the plasma were first heated by electron cyclotron waves, which transfer energy to the electrons that circle the magnetic field lines.

“With no electron cyclotron waves you would have to pump in four megawatts of HHFW power to create 400 kiloamps of current,” she said. “With these waves you can get the same amount of current by pumping in only one megawatt of power.

“All of this is important because it’s hard to control the plasma at the start-up,” she added. “So the faster you can control the plasma, the better.”

PPPL is managed by Princeton University for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science.

Read the abstract.

F.M. Poli, R.G. Andre, N. Bertelli, S.P. Gerhardt, D. Mueller and G. Taylor. “Simulations towards the achievement of non-inductive current ramp-up and sustainment in the National Spherical Torus Experiment Upgrade.” Nuclear Fusion. Published October 30, 2015. DOI: 10.1088/0029-5515/55/12/123011

Using powerful computers, physicists uncover mechanism that stabilizes plasma (Physical Review Letters)

Virtual plasma

A cross-section of the virtual plasma showing where the magnetic field lines intersect the plane. The central section has field lines that rotate exactly once. Image Credit: Stephen Jardin, PPPL.

By Raphael Rosen, Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory Communications

A team of physicists led by Stephen Jardin of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) has discovered a mechanism that prevents the electrical current flowing through fusion plasma from repeatedly peaking and crashing. This behavior is known as a “sawtooth cycle” and can cause instabilities within the plasma’s core. The results have been published online in Physical Review Letters. The research was supported by the DOE Office of Science.

The team, which included scientists from General Atomics and the Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics, performed calculations on the Edison computer at the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center, a division of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Using M3D-C1, a program they developed that creates three-dimensional simulations of fusion plasmas, the team found that under certain conditions a helix-shaped whirlpool of plasma forms around the center of the tokamak. The swirling plasma acts like a dynamo — a moving fluid that creates electric and magnetic fields. Together these fields prevent the current flowing through plasma from peaking and crashing.

The researchers found two specific conditions under which the plasma behaves like a dynamo. First, the magnetic lines that circle the plasma must rotate exactly once, both the long way and the short way around the doughnut-shaped configuration, so an electron or ion following a magnetic field line would end up exactly where it began. Second, the pressure in the center of the plasma must be significantly greater than at the edge, creating a gradient between the two sections. This gradient combines with the rotating magnetic field lines to create spinning rolls of plasma that swirl around the tokamak and gives rise to the dynamo that maintains equilibrium and produces stability.

This dynamo behavior arises only under certain conditions. Both the electrical current running through the plasma and the pressure that the plasma’s electrons and ions exert on their neighbors must be in a range that is “not too large and not too small,” said Jardin. In addition, the speed at which the conditions for the fusion reaction are established must be “not too fast and not too slow.”

Jardin stressed that once a range of conditions like pressure and current are set, the dynamo phenomenon occurs all by itself. “We don’t have to do anything else from the outside,” he noted. “It’s something like when you drain your bathtub and a whirlpool forms over the drain by itself. But because a plasma is more complicated than water, the whirlpool that forms in the tokamak needs to also generate the voltage to sustain itself.”

During the simulations the scientists were able to virtually add new diagnostics, or probes, to the computer code. “These diagnostics were able to measure the helical velocity fields, electric potential, and magnetic fields to clarify how the dynamo forms and persists,” said Jardin. The persistence produces the “voltage in the center of the discharge that keeps the plasma current from peaking.”

Physicists have indirectly observed what they believe to be the dynamo behavior on the DIII-D National Fusion Facility that General Atomics operates for the Department of Energy in San Diego and on the ASDEX Upgrade in Garching, Germany. They hope to learn to create these conditions on demand, especially in ITER, the huge multinational fusion machine being constructed in France to demonstrate the practicality of fusion power. “Now that we understand it better, we think that computer simulations will show us under what conditions this will occur in ITER,” said Jardin. “That will be the focus of our research in the near future.”

Learning how to create these conditions will be particularly important for ITER, which will produce helium nuclei that could amplify the sawtooth disruptions. If large enough, these disruptions could cause other instabilities that could halt the fusion process. Preventing the cycle from starting would therefore be highly beneficial for the ITER experiment.

Read the abstract.

S.C. Jardin, N. Ferraro, and I. Krebs. “Self-Organized Stationary States of Tokamaks.” Physical Review Letters. Published November 17, 2015. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1103/PhysRevLett.115.215001

This article is courtesy of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory.

PPPL physicists propose new plasma-based method to treat radioactive waste (Journal of Hazardous Materials)

Caption: Securing a shipment of mixed, low-level waste from Hanford for treatment and disposal. Credit: U.S. Department of Energy

Caption: Securing a shipment of mixed, low-level waste from Hanford for treatment and disposal. Credit: U.S. Department of Energy

By Raphael Rosen, Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory Communications

Physicists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) are proposing a new way to process nuclear waste that uses a plasma-based centrifuge. Known as plasma mass filtering, the new mass separation techniques would supplement chemical techniques. It is hoped that this combined approach would reduce both the cost of nuclear waste disposal and the amount of byproducts produced during the process. This work was supported by PPPL’s Laboratory Directed Research and Development Program.

“The safe disposal of nuclear waste is a colossal problem,” said Renaud Gueroult, staff physicist at PPPL and lead author of the paper that appeared in the Journal of Hazardous Materials in October. “One solution might be to supplement existing chemical separation techniques with plasma separation techniques, which could be economically attractive, ideally leading to a reevaluation of how nuclear waste is processed.”

The immediate motivation for safe disposal is the radioactive waste stored currently at the Hanford Site, a facility in Washington State that produced plutonium for nuclear weapons during the Cold War. The volume of this waste originally totaled 54 million gallons and was stored in 177 underground tanks.

In 2000, Hanford engineers began building machinery that would encase the radioactive waste in glass. The method, known as “vitrification,” had been used at another Cold War-era nuclear production facility since 1996. A multibillion-dollar vitrification plant is currently under construction at the Hanford site.

To reduce the cost of high-level waste vitrification and disposal, it may be advantageous to reduce the number of high-level glass canisters by packing more waste into each glass canister. To reduce the volume to be vitrified, it would be advantageous to separate the nonradioactive waste, like aluminum and iron, out of the waste, leaving less waste to be vitrified. However, in its 2014 report, the DOE Task Force on Technology Development for Environmental Management argued that, “without the development of new technology, it is not clear that the cleanup can be completed satisfactorily or at any reasonable cost.”

The high-throughput, plasma-based, mass separation techniques advanced at PPPL offer the possibility of reducing the volume of waste that needs to be immobilized in glass. “The interesting thing about our ideas on mass separation is that it is a form of magnetic confinement, so it fits well within the Laboratory’s culture,” said physicist Nat Fisch, co-author of the paper and director of the Princeton University Program in Plasma Physics. “To be more precise, it is ‘differential magnetic confinement’ in that some species are confined while others are lost quickly, which is what makes it a high-throughput mass filter.”

How would a plasma-based mass filter system work? The method begins by atomizing and ionizing the hazardous waste and injecting it into the rotating filter so the individual elements can be influenced by electric and magnetic fields. The filter then separates the lighter elements from the heavier ones by using centrifugal and magnetic forces. The lighter elements are typically less radioactive than the heavier ones and often do not need to be vitrified. Processing of the high-level waste therefore would need fewer high-level glass canisters overall, while the less radioactive material could be immobilized in less costly wasteform (e.g., concrete, bitumen).

The new technique would also be more widely applicable than traditional chemical-based methods since it would depend less on the nuclear waste’s chemical composition. While “the waste’s composition would influence the performance of the plasma mass filter in some ways, the effect would most likely be less than that associated with chemical techniques,” said Gueroult.

Gueroult points out why savings by plasma techniques can be important. “For only about $10 a kilogram in energy cost, solid waste can be ionized. In its ionized form, the waste can then be separated into heavy and light components. Because the waste is atomized, the separation proceeds only on the basis of atomic mass, without regard to the chemistry. Since the total cost of chemical-based techniques can be $2,000 per kilogram of the vitrified waste, as explained in the Journal of Hazardous Materials paper, it stands to reason that even if several plasma-based steps are needed to achieve pure enough separation, there is in principle plenty of room to cut the overall costs. That is the point of our recent paper. It is also why we are excited about our plasma-based methods.”

Fisch notes that “our original ideas grew out of the thesis of Abe Fetterman, who began by considering centrifugal mirror confinement for nuclear fusion, but then realized the potential for mass separation. Now the key role on this project is being played by Renaud, who has developed the concept substantially further.”

According to Fisch, the current developments are a variation and refinement of a plasma-based mass separation system first advanced by a private company called Archimedes Technology Group. That company, started by the late Dr. Tihiro Ohkawa, a fusion pioneer, raised private capital to advance a plasma-based centrifuge concept to clean up the legacy waste at Hanford, but ceased operation in 2006 after failing to receive federal funding.

Now an updated understanding of the complexity of the Hanford problem, combined with an increased appreciation of new ideas, has led to renewed federal interest in waste-treatment solutions. Completion of the main waste processing operations, which was in 2002 projected for 2028, has slipped by 20 years over the last 13 years, and the total cleanup cost is now estimated by the Department of Energy to be greater than 250 billion dollars, according to the DOE Office of Inspector General, Office of Audits and Inspections. DOE, which has the responsibility of cleaning up the legacy nuclear waste at Hanford and other sites, conducted a Basic Research Needs Workshop on nuclear waste cleanup in July that both Fisch and Gueroult attended. The report of that workshop, which is expected to highlight new approaches to the cleanup problem, is due out this fall.

PPPL, on Princeton University’s Forrestal Campus in Plainsboro, N.J., is devoted to creating new knowledge about the physics of plasmas — ultra-hot, charged gases — and to developing practical solutions for the creation of fusion energy. Results of PPPL research have ranged from a portable nuclear materials detector for anti-terrorist use to universally employed computer codes for analyzing and predicting the outcome of fusion experiments. The Laboratory is managed by the University for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science, which is the largest single supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit science.energy.gov.

Read the abstract.

Renaud Gueroult, David T. Hobbs, Nathaniel J. Fisch. “Plasma filtering techniques for nuclear waste remediation.” Journal of Hazardous Materials, published October 2015. doi:10.1016/j.jhazmat.2015.04.058.

Identifying new sources of turbulence in spherical tokamaks (Physics of Plasmas)

By John Greenwald, Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory Communications

Turbulence 1

Computer simulation of turbulence in a model of the NSTX-U, a spherical tokamak fusion facility at the U.S. Dept. of Energy’s Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory. Credit: Eliot Feibush

For fusion reactions to take place efficiently, the atomic nuclei that fuse together in plasma must be kept sufficiently hot. But turbulence in the plasma that flows in facilities called tokamaks can cause heat to leak from the core of the plasma to its outer edge, causing reactions to fizzle out.

Researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) have for the first time modeled previously unsuspected sources of turbulence in spherical tokamaks, an alternative design for producing fusion energy. The findings, published online in October in Physics of Plasmas, could influence the development of future fusion facilities. This work was supported by the DOE Office of Science.

Spherical tokamaks, like the recently completed National Spherical Torus Experiment-Upgrade (NSTX-U) at PPPL, are shaped like cored apples compared with the mushroom-like design of conventional tokamaks that are more widely used. The cored-apple shape provides some distinct characteristics for the behavior of the plasma inside.

The paper, with PPPL principal research physicist Weixing Wang as lead author, identifies two important new sources of turbulence based on data from experiments on the National Spherical Torus Experiment prior to its upgrade. The discoveries were made by using state-of-the-art large-scale computer simulations. These sources are:

  • Instabilities caused by plasma that flows faster in the center of the fusion facility than toward the edge when rotating strongly in L-mode — or low confinement — regimes. These instabilities, called “Kelvin-Helmholtz modes” after physicists Baron Kelvin and Hermann von Helmholtz, act like wind that stirs up waves as it blows over water and are for the first time found to be relevant for realistic fusion experiments. Such non-uniform plasma flows have been known to play favorable roles in fusion plasmas in conventional and spherical tokamaks. The new results from this study suggest that we may also need to keep these flows within an optimized level.
  • Trapped electrons that bounce between two points in a section of the tokamak instead of swirling all the way around the facility. These electrons were shown to cause significant leakage of heat in H-mode — or high-confinement — regimes by driving a specific instability when they collide frequently. This type of instability is believed to play little role in conventional tokamaks but can provide a robust source of plasma turbulence in spherical tokamaks.

Most interestingly, the model predicts a range of trapped electron collisions in spherical tokamaks that can be turbulence-free, thus improving the plasma confinement. Such favorable plasmas could possibly be achieved by future advanced spherical tokamaks operating at high temperature.

Findings of the new model can be tested on the NSTX-U and will help guide experiments to identify non-traditional sources of turbulence in the spherical facility. Results of this research can shed light on the physics behind key obstacles to plasma confinement in spherical facilities and on ways to overcome them in future machines.

PPPL, on Princeton University’s Forrestal Campus in Plainsboro, N.J., is devoted to creating new knowledge about the physics of plasmas — ultra-hot, charged gases — and to developing practical solutions for the creation of fusion energy. Results of PPPL research have ranged from a portable nuclear materials detector for anti-terrorist use to universally employed computer codes for analyzing and predicting the outcome of fusion experiments. The Laboratory is managed by Princeton University for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science, which is the largest single supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit science.energy.gov.

Read the abstract:

Weixing X. Wang, Stephane Ethier, Yang Ren, Stanley Kaye, Jin Chen, Edward Startsev, Zhixin Lu, and Zhengqian Li. “Identification of new turbulence contributions to plasma transport and confinement in spherical tokamak regime.” Physics of Plasmas, published October 2015. doi:10.1063/1.4933216.

Scientists propose an explanation for electron heat loss in fusion plasmas (Physical Review Letters)

By Raphael Rosen, Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory

Elena Belova

PPPL Scientist Elena Belova
Photo Credit: Elle Starkman, PPPL

Creating controlled fusion energy entails many challenges, but one of the most basic is heating plasma – hot gas composed of electrons and charged atoms – to extremely high temperatures and then maintaining those temperatures. Now scientist Elena Belova of the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) and a team of collaborators have proposed an explanation for why the hot plasma within fusion facilities called tokamaks sometimes fails to reach the required temperature, even as researchers pump beams of fast-moving neutral atoms into the plasma in an effort to make it hotter.

The results, published in June in Physical Review Letters, could lead to improved control of temperature in future fusion devices, including ITER, the international fusion facility under construction in France to demonstrate the feasibility of fusion power. This work was supported by the DOE Office of Science (Office of Fusion Energy Sciences).

The researchers focused on the puzzling tendency of electron heat to leak from the core of the plasma to the plasma’s edge. “One of the largest remaining mysteries in plasma physics is how electron heat is transported out of plasma,” said Jon Menard, program director for PPPL’s major fusion experiment, the National Spherical Tokamak Experiment-Upgrade (NSTX-U), which is completing a $94 million upgrade.

Belova hit upon a possible answer while performing 3D simulations of past NSTX plasmas on computers at the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center (NERSC), in Oakland, California. She saw that two kinds of waves found in fusion plasmas appear to form a chain that transfers the neutral-beam energy from the core of the plasma to the edge, where the heat dissipates. While physicists have long known that the coupling between the two kinds of waves – known as compressional Alfvén waves and kinetic Alfvén waves (KAWs) – can lead to energy dissipation in plasmas, Belova’s results were the first to demonstrate the process for beam-excited compressional Alfvén eigenmodes (CAEs) in tokamaks.

Her simulations showed that when researchers try to heat the plasma by injecting beams of energetic deuterium, a form of hydrogen, the beams excite CAE waves in the plasma’s core. Those waves then resonate with KAW waves, which occur primarily at the plasma’s edge. As a result, the energy is transported from the injection site deep within the plasma to the plasma’s edge.

“Originally, when scientists found that the electron temperature wouldn’t go up with increased beam power, everybody assumed that the electrons were getting heated at the plasma’s center and then were somehow losing that heat,” Belova said. “Our explanation is different. We propose that part of the beam energy goes into CAEs and then to KAWs. The energy then dissipates at the plasma’s edge.”

The simulations provided a broad perspective. “In simulations you can look everywhere in a plasma,” Belova said. “In the experiments, on the other hand, you are very limited in what and where you can measure inside the hot plasma.”

Belova’s findings reflect the growing collaboration between theoretical and experimental research at the Laboratory. “Her results uncover a novel loss mechanism for electron energy that could be important for NSTX-U plasmas,” said Amitava Bhattacharjee, head of the Theory Department at PPPL.

Belova plans to run more simulations to determine whether the mechanism she identified is the primary process that modifies the electron heating profile. She will also look for ways in which physicists can avoid this wave-induced change in the profile. In the meantime, she is driven by her desire to learn more physics. “We want to understand how these waves are excited by the beam ions,” she said, “and how to avoid them in the experiments.”

PPPL, on Princeton University’s Forrestal Campus in Plainsboro, N.J., is devoted to creating new knowledge about the physics of plasmas — ultra-hot, charged gases — and to developing practical solutions for the creation of fusion energy. Results of PPPL research have ranged from a portable nuclear materials detector for anti-terrorist use to universally employed computer codes for analyzing and predicting the outcome of fusion experiments. The Laboratory is managed by the University for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science, which is the largest single supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit science.energy.gov.

Read the abstract.

Belova, E.V., N.N. Gorelenkov, E.D. Fredrickson, K. Tritz and N. A. Crocker. “Coupling of Neutral-Beam-Driven Compressional Alfvén Eigenmodes to Kinetic Alfvén Waves in NSTX Tokamak and Energy Channeling.” Physical Review Letters. Published June 29, 2015. DOI: 10.1103/PhysRevLett.115.015001

 

Researchers correlate incidences of rheumatoid arthritis and giant cell arteritis with solar cycles (BMJ Open)

Solar storm

Coronal mass ejection hurling plasma from the sun. (Image credit: NASA)

By John Greenwald, Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory

What began as a chat between husband and wife has evolved into an intriguing scientific discovery. The results, published in May in BMJ (formerly British Medical Journal) Open, show a “highly significant” correlation between periodic solar storms and incidences of rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and giant cell arteritis (GCA), two potentially debilitating autoimmune diseases. The findings by a rare collaboration of physicists and medical researchers suggest a relationship between the solar outbursts and the incidence of these diseases that could lead to preventive measures if a causal link can be established.

RA and GCA are autoimmune conditions in which the body mistakenly attacks its own organs and tissues. RA inflames and swells joints and can cause crippling damage if left untreated. In GCA, the autoimmune disease results in inflammation of the wall of arteries, leading to headaches, jaw pain, vision problems and even blindness in severe cases.

Inspiring this study were conversations between Simon Wing, a Johns Hopkins University physicist and first author of the paper, and his wife, Lisa Rider, deputy unit chief of the Environmental Autoimmunity Group at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences in the National Institutes of Health, and a coauthor. Rider spotted data from the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, showing that cases of RA and GCA followed close to 10-year cycles. “That got me curious,” Wing recalled. “Only a few things in nature have a periodicity of about 10-11 years and the solar cycle is one of them.”

Wing teamed with physicist Jay Johnson of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, a long-time collaborator, to investigate further. When the physicists tracked the incidence of RA and GCA cases compiled by Mayo Clinic researchers, the results suggested “more than a coincidental connection,” said Eric Matteson, chair of the division of rheumatology at the Mayo Clinic, and a coauthor. This work drew upon previous space physics research supported by the DOE Office of Science.

The findings found increased incidents of RA and GCA to be in periodic concert with the cycle of magnetic activity of the sun. During the solar cycle, dramatic changes that can affect space weather near Earth take place in the sun. At the solar maximum, for example, an increased number of outbursts called coronal mass ejections hurl millions of tons of magnetic and electrically charged plasma gas against the Earth’s magnetosphere, the magnetic field that surrounds the planet. This contact whips up geomagnetic disturbances that can disrupt cell phone service, damage satellites and knock out power grids. More importantly, during the declining phase of the solar maximum high-speed streams develop in the solar wind that is made up of plasma that flows from the sun. These streams continuously buffet Earth’s magnetosphere, producing enhanced geomagnetic activity at high Earth latitudes.

The research, which tracked correlations of the diseases with both geomagnetic activity and extreme ultraviolet (EUV) solar radiation, focused on cases recorded in Olmsted County, Minnesota, the home of the Mayo Clinic, over more than five decades. The physicists compared the data with indices of EUV radiation for the years 1950 through 2007 and indices of geomagnetic activity from 1966 through 2007. Included were all 207 cases of GCA and all 1,179 cases of RA occurring in Olmsted County during the periods and collected in a long-term study led by Sherine Gabriel, then of the Mayo Clinic and now dean of the Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School.

Correlations proved to be strongest between the diseases and geomagnetic activity. GCA incidence — defined as the number of new cases per capita per year in the county — regularly peaked within one year of the most intense geomagnetic activity, while RA incidence fell to a minimum within one year of the least intense activity. Correlations with the EUV indices were seen to be less robust and showed a significantly longer response time.

The findings were consistent with previous studies of the geographic distribution of RA cases in the United States. Such research found a greater incidence of the disease in sections of the country that are more likely to be affected by geomagnetic activity. For example, the heaviest incidence lay along geographic latitudes on the East Coast that were below those on the West Coast. This asymmetry may reflect the fact that high geomagnetic latitudes — areas most subject to geomagnetic activity — swing lower on the East Coast than on the opposite side of the country. While Washington, D.C., lies just 1 degree farther north than San Francisco geographically, for example, the U.S. capital is 7 degrees farther north in terms of geomagnetic latitude.

Although the authors make no claim to a causal explanation for their findings, they identify five characteristics of the disease occurrence that are not obviously explained by any of the currently leading hypotheses. These include the east-west asymmetries of the RA and GCA outbreaks and the periodicities of the incidences in concert with the solar cycle. Among the possible causal pathways the authors consider are reduced production of the hormone melatonin, an anti-inflammatory mediator with immune-enhancing effects, and increased formation of free radicals in susceptible individuals. A study of 142 electrical power workers found that excretion of melatonin — a proxy used to estimate production of the hormone — was reduced by 21 percent on days with increased geomagnetic activity.

Confirming a causal link between outbreaks of RA and GCA and geomagnetic activity would be an important step towards developing strategies for mitigating the impact of the activity on susceptible individuals. These strategies could include relocating to lower latitudes and developing methods to counteract direct causal agents that may be controlled by geomagnetic activity. For now, say the authors, their findings warrant further investigations covering longer time periods, additional locations and other autoimmune diseases.

PPPL, on Princeton University’s Forrestal Campus in Plainsboro, N.J., is devoted to creating new knowledge about the physics of plasmas — ultra-hot, charged gases — and to developing practical solutions for the creation of fusion energy. Results of PPPL research have ranged from a portable nuclear materials detector for anti-terrorist use to universally employed computer codes for analyzing and predicting the outcome of fusion experiments. The Laboratory is managed by the University for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science, which is the largest single supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit science.energy.gov.

This work was funded from NIH grants (NIAMS R01 AR046849, NIA R01 AG034676). This research was supported in part by the Intramural Research Program of the NIH, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. This work has also benefited from the works funded by NSF grants (ATM-0802715, AGS-1058456, ATM09002730, AGS1203299), NASA grants (NNX13AE12G, NNH09AM53I, NN09AK63I, NNH11AR07I), and DOE contract (DE-AC02-09CH11466).

Read the abstract

Wing, Simon; Rider, Lisa G.; Johnson, Jay R.; Miller, Frederick W.; Matteson, Eric L.; Crowson, Cynthia S.; Gabriel, Sherine E. “Do solar cycles influence giant cell arteritis and rheumatoid arthritis incidence?” BMJ Open, May 2015

Giant structures called plasmoids could simplify the design of future tokamaks (Physical Review Letters)

Plasmoid formation in plasma simulation

Left: Plasmoid formation in simulation of NSTX plasma during CHI. Credit: Fatima Ebrahimi, PPPL / Right: Fast-camera image of NSTX plasma shows two discrete plasmoid-like bubble structures. Credit: Nishino-san, Hiroshima University

By Raphael Rosen, Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory

Researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) have for the first time simulated the formation of structures called “plasmoids” during Coaxial Helicity Injection (CHI), a process that could simplify the design of fusion facilities known as tokamaks. The findings, reported in the journal Physical Review Letters, involve the formation of plasmoids in the hot, charged plasma gas that fuels fusion reactions. These round structures carry current that could eliminate the need for solenoids – large magnetic coils that wind down the center of today’s tokamaks – to initiate the plasma and complete the magnetic field that confines the hot gas.

“Understanding this behavior will help us produce plasmas that undergo fusion reactions indefinitely,” said Fatima Ebrahimi, a physicist at both Princeton University and PPPL, and the paper’s lead author.

Ebrahimi ran a computer simulation that modeled the behavior of plasma and the formation of plasmoids in three dimensions thoughout a tokamak’s vacuum vessel. This marked the first time researchers had modeled plasmoids in conditions that closely mimicked those within an actual tokamak. All previous simulations had modeled only a thin slice of the plasma – a simplified picture that could fail to capture the full range of plasma behavior.

Researchers validated their model by comparing it with fast-camera images of plasma behavior inside the National Spherical Torus Experiment (NSTX), PPPL’s major fusion facility. These images also showed plasmoid-like structures, confirming the simulation and giving the research breakthrough significance, since it revealed the existence of plasmoids in an environment in which they had never been seen before. “These findings are in a whole different league from previous ones,” said Roger Raman, leader for the Coaxial Helicity Injection Research program on NSTX and a coauthor of the paper.

The findings may provide theoretical support for the design of a new kind of tokamak with no need for a large solenoid to complete the magnetic field. Solenoids create magnetic fields when electric current courses through them in relatively short pulses. Today’s conventional tokamaks, which are shaped like a donut, and spherical tokamaks, which are shaped like a cored apple, both employ solenoids. But future tokamaks will need to operate in a constant or steady state for weeks or months at a time. Moreover, the space in which the solenoid fits – the hole in the middle of the doughnut-shaped tokamak – is relatively small and limits the size and strength of the solenoid.

A clear understanding of plasmoid formation could thus lead to a more efficient method of creating and maintaining a plasma through transient Coaxial Helicity Injection. This method, originally developed at the University of Washington, could dispense with a solenoid entirely and would work like this:

  • Researchers first inject open magnetic field lines into the vessel from the bottom of the vacuum chamber. As researchers drive electric current along those magnetic lines, the lines snap closed and form the plasmoids, much like soap bubbles being blown out of a sheet of soapy film.
  • The many plasmoids would then merge to form one giant plasmoid that could fill the vacuum chamber.
  • The magnetic field within this giant plasmoid would induce a current in the plasma to keep the gas tightly in place. “In principle, CHI could fundamentally change how tokamaks are built in the future,” says Raman.

Understanding how the magnetic lines in plasmoids snap closed could also help solar physicists decode the workings of the sun. Huge magnetic lines regularly loop off the surface of the star, bringing the sun’s hot plasma with them. These lines sometimes snap together to form a plasmoid-like mass that can interfere with communications satellites when it collides with the magnetic field that surrounds the Earth.

While Ebrahimi’s findings are promising, she stresses that much more is to come. PPPL’s National Spherical Torus Experiment-Upgrade (NSTX-U) will provide a more powerful platform for studying plasmoids when it begins operating this year, making Ebrahimi’s research “only the beginning of even more exciting work that will be done on PPPL equipment,” she said.

PPPL, on Princeton University’s Forrestal Campus in Plainsboro, N.J., is devoted to creating new knowledge about the physics of plasmas — ultra-hot, charged gases — and to developing practical solutions for the creation of fusion energy. Results of PPPL research have ranged from a portable nuclear materials detector for anti-terrorist use to universally employed computer codes for analyzing and predicting the outcome of fusion experiments. The Laboratory is managed by the University for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science, which is the largest single supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit science.energy.gov.

Read the abstract

Ebrahimi and R. Raman. “Plasmoids Formation During Simulations of Coaxial Helicity Injection in the National Spherical Torus Experiment. Physical Review Letters. Published May 20, 2015. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1103/PhysRevLett.114.205003