An innovative new piece of equipment – designed to enhance research into fusion relevant ‘superconducting’ materials – has been installed at UKAEA’s Materials Research Facility (MRF).
The PPMS (or Physical Properties Measurement System) will examine how superconducting components are affected by neutron bombardment – information which is relevant to the design of future fusion power plants like STEP. It will also further research for UKAEA’s academic and industrial partners.
Neutron bombardment – where neutrons released by the fusion reaction hit other materials inside the machine – causes atoms to be knocked out of position. This movement of atomic structure alters the material’s behaviour.
Superconductors are materials which lose their electrical resistance when cooled to low temperatures. This is important for fusion because superconducting materials can carry higher current – and produce a much stronger magnetic field – than conventional materials are able to. Further, less power is consumed by them and they are more economic to operate. Because of this, the magnets of ITER and other future fusion devices will be superconducting.
The PPMS – which has the capacity to reach a magnetic field of up to 14 T (the fields these materials will be subjected to in a future fusion power plant) – will test materials at temperatures ranging from 1.8 Kelvin (or -271C) up to 700 degrees C and seek to build a profile of how specific materials behave and react when subject to the extremities of temperature and radiation.
Frank Schoofs, materials engineer at UKAEA, said: “A fusion power plant’s magnet system will be exposed to a wide range of temperatures, magnetic fields, and radiation over its lifetime.
“This range of environments will influence the behaviour and properties of the materials involved: the structural enclosure, the copper support, and the superconductor.
“For all these materials, we need to know the physical properties over a wide temperature and magnetic field range, especially when predicting how long they will last in a power plant.
“Current academic and industrial partners do not have access to a PPMS that can handle radioactive samples. Such a facility, housed at UKAEA, would be a catalyst in bringing the national and international community together, for example on irradiation effects on low- and high-temperature superconductors. We can therefore expect that the Materials Research Facility’s PPMS will feature in high-profile research studies, due to its unique capability and accessibility.”