The FRC has been first observed in laboratory in the late 1950s during theta pinch experiments with a reversed background magnetic field. The first studies about the effect started at the United States Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) in the 1960s, and considerable data is available since then, with over 600 published papers. Almost all research was conducted during Project Sherwood at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) from 1975 to 1990, and during 18 years at the Redmond Plasma Physics Laboratory of the University of Washington, with the large s experiment (LSX). More recently some research has been done at the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), the Fusion Technology Institute (FTI) of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of California, Irvine. Some private companies now theoretically and experimentally study FRCs in order to use this configuration in future fusion power plants they try to build, like General Fusion, Tri-Alpha Energy, Inc., MSNW LLC and Helion Energy.
The FRC is also considered for deep space exploration, not only as a possible nuclear energy source, but as means of accelerating a propellant to very high levels of specific impulse (Isp) for electrically powered spaceships and fusion rockets, with interest expressed by NASA and the media.
One approach to producing fusion power is to confine the plasma with magnetic fields. This is most effective if the field lines do not penetrate solid surfaces but close on themselves into circles or toroidal surfaces. The mainline confinement concepts of tokamak and stellarator do this in a toroidal chamber, which allows a great deal of control over the magnetic configuration, but requires a very complex construction. The Field-Reversed Configuration offers an alternative in that the field lines are closed, providing good confinement, but the chamber is cylindrical, allowing easy construction and maintenance.
A Field-Reversed Configuration is formed in a cylindrical coil which produces an axial magnetic field. First, an axial bias field is applied, then the gas is pre-ionized, which "freezes in" the bias field, finally the axial field is reversed. At the ends, reconnection of the bias field and the main field occurs, producing closed field lines. The main field is raised further, compressing and heating the plasma and providing a vacuum field between the plasma and the wall.
Field-reversed configurations and spheromaks are together known as compact toroids. Unlike the spheromak, where the strength of the toroidal magnetic field is similar to that of the poloidal field, the FRC has little to no toroidal field component and is confined solely by a poloidal field. The lack of a toroidal field means that the FRC has no magnetic helicity and that it has a high beta. The high beta makes the FRC attractive as a fusion reactor. Spheromaks have β ≈ 0.1 whereas a typical FRC has β ≈ 1.
Charged particles inside an FRC follow large betatron orbits (their average gyroradius is about half the size of the plasma) which are typical in accelerator physics rather than plasma physics. FRCs are very stable because the plasma is not dominated by usual small gyroradius particles like other thermodynamic equilibrium or nonthermal plasmas. Its behavior is not described by classical magnetohydrodynamics, hence no Alfvén waves and almost no MHD instabilities despite their theoretical prediction, and it avoids the typical "anomalous transport", i.e. all processes in which loss of particles or energy occurs.
As of 2000[update], several remaining instabilities are being studied:
- The tilt and shift modes. Those instabilities can be mitigated by either including a passive stabilizing conductor, or by forming very oblate plasmas (i.e. very elongated plasmas), or by creating a self-generated toroidal field. The tilt mode has also been stabilized in FRC experiments by increasing the ion gyroradii.
- The magnetorotational instability. This mode causes a rotating elliptical distortion of the plasma boundary, and can destroy the FRC when the distorted plasma comes in contact with the confinement chamber. Successful stabilization methods include the use of a quadrapole stabilizing field, and the effects of a rotating magnetic field (RMF).
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