MIT and Columbia University researchers have begun operation of a novel experiment that confines a high-temperature ionised plasma within the strong magnetic field of a half-ton superconducting ring inside a huge containment vessel.

The experiment, the first of its kind, will test whether this way of confining high-temperature gas might lead to a new source of energy.

First results from the ‘levitated dipole experiment’ (LDX) were presented at a meeting of the American Physical Society recently. Researchers described more than 100 plasma discharges created within the LDX, each lasting from five to 10 seconds. X-ray spectroscopy and visible light photography recorded spectacular images of the hot, confined plasma and of the dynamics of matter confined by strong magnetic fields.

Basic studies of confined high-temperature matter are expected to show whether the plasma may be used to produce fusion energy. The LDX primary confining fields are created by a powerful superconducting ring a few feet across and weighing more than a half-ton that will ultimately be levitated within a large vacuum chamber. A second superconducting magnet located above the vacuum chamber provides the field necessary to support the weight of the floating coil. The resulting force field resembles the fields of the magnetised planets, such as Earth and Jupiter. It has been observed that these fields can confine plasma at hundreds of millions of degrees.

The LDX research team is led by Jay Kesner, senior scientist at MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center and Michael Mauel, a professor of applied physics at Columbia University. The work is sponsored by the US department of energy’s Office of Fusion Energy Sciences.