Field-reversed configuration

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Field-reversed configuration: a toroidal electric current is induced inside a cylindrical plasma, creating a poloidal magnetic field, reversed in respect to the direction of an externally applied magnetic field. The resultant high-beta axisymmetric compact toroid is self-confined.

A field-reversed configuration (FRC) is a device developed for magnetic confinement fusion research that confines a plasma on closed magnetic field lines without a central penetration.[1]


The FRC was first observed in laboratories in the late 1950s during theta pinch experiments with a reversed background magnetic field.[2] The first studies of the effect started at the United States Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) in the 1960s. Considerable data has been collected since then, with over 600 published papers.[3] Almost all research was conducted during Project Sherwood at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) from 1975 to 1990,[4] and during 18 years at the Redmond Plasma Physics Laboratory of the University of Washington,[5] with the large s experiment (LSX).[6] More recently some research has been done at the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL),[7] the Fusion Technology Institute (FTI) of the University of Wisconsin-Madison[8] and the University of California, Irvine.[9] 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., and Helion Energy.[10]

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[11][12][13][14][15][16] and the media.[17][18]


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 simpler, easier construction and maintenance.[19]

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 and uniquely suited to aneutronic fuels because of the low required magnetic field. Spheromaks have β ≈ 0.1 whereas a typical FRC has β ≈ 1.[20][21]


In modern FRC experiments, the plasma current that reverses the magnetic field can be induced in a variety of ways.

When a field-reversed configuration is formed using the theta-pinch (or inductive electric field) method, a cylindrical coil first produces an axial magnetic field. Then the gas is pre-ionized, which "freezes in" the bias field from a magnetohydrodynamic standpoint, finally the axial field is reversed, hence "field-reversed configuration." 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.[22]

Neutral beams are known to drive current in Tokamaks[23] by directly injecting charged particles. FRCs can also be formed, sustained, and heated by application of neutral beams.[21][24] In such experiments, as above, a cylindrical coil produces a uniform axial magnetic field and gas is introduced and ionized, creating a background plasma. Neutral particles are then injected into the plasma. They ionize and the heavier, positively-charged particles form a current ring which reverses the magnetic field.

Spheromaks are FRC-like configurations with finite toroidal magnetic field. FRCs have been formed through the merging of spheromaks of opposite and canceling toroidal field.[25]

Rotating magnetic fields have also been used to drive current.[26] In such experiments, as above, gas is ionized and an axial magnetic field is produced. A rotating magnetic field is produced by external magnetic coils perpendicular to the axis of the machine, and the direction of this field is rotated about the axis. When the rotation frequency is between the ion and electron gyro-frequencies, the electrons in the plasma co-rotate with the magnetic field (are "dragged"), producing current and reversing the magnetic field. More recently, so-called odd parity rotating magnetic fields[27] have been used to preserve the closed topology of the FRC.

Single Particle Orbits[edit]

FRC particle trajectory in which a particle starts with cyclotron motion inside the null, transitions to betatron motion, and ends as cyclotron motion outside the null. This motion is in the midplane of the machine. Coils are above and below the figure.

FRCs contain an important and uncommon feature: a "magnetic null," or circular line on which the magnetic field is zero. This is necessarily the case, as inside the null the magnetic field points one direction and outside the null the magnetic field points the opposite direction. Particles far from the null trace closed cyclotron orbits as in other magnetic fusion geometries. Particles which cross the null, however, trace not cyclotron or circular orbits but betatron or figure-eight-like orbits,[28] as the orbit's curvature changes direction when it crosses the magnetic null.

Because the particles orbits are not cyclotron, models of plasma behavior based on cyclotron motion like Magnetohydrodynamics (MHD) are entirely inapplicable in the region around the null. The size of this region is related to the s-parameter,[29] or the ratio of the distance between the null and separatrix, and the thermal ion gyroradius. At high-s, most particles do not cross the null and this effect is negligible. At low-s, ~2, this effect dominates and the FRC is said to be "kinetic" rather than "MHD."

Plasma stability[edit]

At low s-parameter, most ions 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. These 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,[30] and it avoids the typical "anomalous transport", i.e. processes in which excess loss of particles or energy occurs.[31][32][33]

As of 2000, 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),[34] or by creating a self-generated toroidal field.[35] The tilt mode has also been stabilized in FRC experiments by increasing the ion gyroradii.[29]
  • 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.[36] Successful stabilization methods include the use of a quadrupole stabilizing field,[37][38] and the effects of a rotating magnetic field (RMF).[39][40]


Selected field reverse experiments, pre-1988[3]
Year Device Location Device length Device diameter B-field Fill pressure Confinement Studied
Meter Meter Tesla Pascal Seconds
1959 - NRL 0.10 0.06 10.00 13.33 2.E-06 Annihilation
1961 Scylla I LASL 0.11 0.05 5.50 11.33 3.E-06 Annihilation
1962 Scylla III LASL 0.19 0.08 12.50 11.33 4.E-06 Rotation
1962 Thetatron Culham 0.21 0.05 8.60 13.33 3.E-06 Contraction
1962 Julich 0.10 0.04 6.00 30.66 1.E-06 Formation, tearing
1963 Culham 0.30 0.10 5.00 6.67 6.E-06 Contraction
1964 0-PII Garching 0.30 0.05 5.30 13.33 1.E-06 Tearing, contraction
1965 Pharos NRL 1.80 0.17 3.00 8.00 3.E-05 Confinement, rotation
1967 Centaur Culham 0.50 0.19 2.10 2.67 2.E-05 Confinement, rotation
1967 Julietta Julich 1.28 0.11 2.70 6.67 2.E-05 Tearing
1971 E-G Garching 0.70 0.11 2.80 6.67 3.E-05 Tearing, rotation
1975 BN Kurchatov 0.90 0.21 0.45 0.27 - 1.07 5.E-05 Formation
1979 TOR Kurchatov 1.50 0.30 1.00 0.27 - 0.67 1.E-04 Formation
1979 FRX-A LASL 1.00 0.25 0.60 0.53 - 0.93 3.E-05 Confinement
1981 FRX-B LANL 1.00 0.25 1.30 1.20 - 6.53 6.E-05 Confinement
1982 STP-L Nagoya 1.50 0.12 1.00 1.20 3.E-05 Rotation
1982 NUCTE Nihon 2.00 0.16 1.00 6.E-05 Confinement, rotation
1982 PIACE Osaka 1.00 0.15 1.40 6.E-05 Rotation
1983 FRX-C LANL 2.00 0.50 0.80 0.67 - 2.67 3.E-04 Confinement
1984 TRX-1 MSNW 1.00 0.25 1.00 0.67 -2.00 2.E-04 Formation, confinement
1984 CTTX Penn S U 0.50 0.12 0.40 13.33 4.E-05 Confinement
1985 HBQM U Wash 3.00 0.22 0.50 0.53 - 0.93 3.E-05 Formation
1986 OCT Osaka 0.60 0.22 1.00 1.E-04 Confinement
1986 TRX-2 STI 1.00 0.24 1.30 0.40 - 2.67 1.E-04 Formation, confinement
1987 CSS U Wash 1.00 0.45 0.30 1.33 - 8.00 6.E-05 Slow formation
1988 FRXC/LSM LANL 2.00 0.70 0.60 0.27 - 1.33 5.E-04 Formation, confinement
1990 LSX STI/MSNW 5.00 0.90 0.80 0.27 - 0.67 Stability, confinement
Selected field reverse configurations, 1988 - 2011[41]
Device Institution Device type Electron density Max ion or electron FRC diameter Length/diameter
10E19 / Meter^3 Temperature [eV] [Meter]
Spheromak-3 Tokyo University Merging spheromak 5.0 – 10.0 20 – 100 0.40 1.0
Spheromak-4 Tokyo University Merging spheromak 10 – 40 1.20 - 1.40 0.5 – 0.7
Compact Torus Exp-III Nihon University Theta-pinch 5.0 – 400.0 200 – 300 0.10 - 0.40 5.0 – 10.0
Field-Reversed Exp Liner Los Alamos Theta-pinch 1,500.0 – 2,500.0 200 – 700 0.03 - 0.05 7.0 – 10.0
FRC Injection Exp Osaka University Translation trapping 3.0 – 5.0 200 – 300 0.30 - 0.40 7.0 – 15.0
Swarthmore Spheromak Exp Swarthmore Merging spheromak 100 20 – 40 0.40 1.5
Magnetic Reconnection Exp Princeton (PPPL) Merging spheromak 5.0 – 20.0 30 1.00 0.3 – 0.7
Princeton Field Reverse Exp (PFRC) Princeton (PPPL) Rotating B-field 0.05 – 0.3 200 – 300 0.06
Translation Confinement Sustainment University of Washington Rotating B-field 0.1 – 2.5 25 – 50 0.70 - 0.74
Translation Confinement Sustainment-Upgrade University of Washington Rotating B-field 0.4 – 1.5 50 – 200 0.70 - 0.74 1.5 – 3.0
Plasma Liner Compression MSNW Translation trapping 0.20
Inductive Plasma Accelerator MSNW Merging collision 23.0 – 26.0 350 0.20
Inductive Plasma Accelerator-C MSNW Merging compression 300.0 1200 - 2000 0.2 10.0
Colorado FRC University of Colorado Merging spheromak
Irvine Field Reverse Configuration UC Irvine Coaxial source 150.0 10 0.60
C-2 Tri Alpha Energy, Inc. Merging collision 5.0 – 10.0 200 – 500 0.60 - 0.80 3.0 – 5.0

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


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