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I've been reading quite a bit about gas-core reactors, a theoretical reactor design where the fissioning of Uranium(along with Plutonium & possibly Thorium)occurs in gas phase. The result is that the heat of the reaction converts the gaseous nuclear fuel into plasma which can be contained in a magnetic bottle. The most feasible design for such a reactor is cylindrical metal reactor vessel with a magnetic solenoid where the electromagnets push inward radially; confining the plasma. I would imagine that such a reactor would need an inner lining of neutron reflecting material to deflect neutrons and bounce them back and forth across the chamber. But do to the chemical properties of Uranium Hexafluoride gas it might be more prudent to use a single, supercritical solid fuel rod assembled vertically inside of a vacuum solenoid. The fuel rod would then be bombarded by intense microwaves from directly above to convert it into plasma after the electromagnets are turned on. But the question remains if it is even possible to compress the plasma to a high enough density to initiate fission. Has this experiment ever been tried? If so, what were the results?

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Just when I thought I had heard it all... but good question in all seriousness. For clarity, is the idea of a fuel rod within this thing your original idea? My current mental picture is that using a solid rod would be mutually exclusive with this idea. Just take iter (or some other confinement) and replace the fusion reaction with a fission reaction. I think that the properties of the confinement method require plasma temperatures which would rule out solid structures. –  AlanSE Jun 9 '13 at 23:11
To clarify: one does not need to compress plasma or, goodness forbid, put a supercritical rod somewhere. You simply manipulate berillium reflectors and other controls to go to delayed criticality. –  Deer Hunter Jun 9 '13 at 23:50
Another clarification: using $\phantom0^{233}U$ to get and burn thorium isn't really practical. –  Deer Hunter Jun 9 '13 at 23:52
Thanks for the clarification, Deer Hunter. I mentioned thorium because it is used for breeder reactors. –  Mr X Jun 10 '13 at 1:07
AlanSE: Solid Uranium and Plutonium ionize very easily and can be converted into plasma by means of microwave irradiation which is done during the enrichment process. I say that vaporizing the solid fuel into plasma that way would have some advantages over using gaseous uranium hexafluoride. But another possibility would be the addition of deuterium gas to create a fission-fusion hybrid reactor. –  Mr X Jun 10 '13 at 1:10
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Yes, there were experiments both in USA and USSR, but as far as I know all actual criticality experiments used only 'cold' UF$_6$ gas, not plasma ( not venturing even close to thousand degrees K so no MHD stuff / first wall thermal load testing was done).

Let me present a report 'Spherical Gas Core Reactor Critical Experiment' that was conducted at ~1969-1971 with NASA sponsorship at National Reactor Testing Station in Idaho.

From report:

During the latter half of 1969 a spherical geometry Cavity Reactor Mockup was constructed and nuclear testing with a highly enriched $^{235}\mathrm{UF}_6$ core commenced.

Summary of results:

The experiments were relatively "clean" and should serve as benchmarks for calculational purposes. The inner spherical gaseous fuel region (127 cm dia) was located in a 183 cm diameter cavity surrounded by 91 cm of commercial grade heavy water. The critical mass was 8.4 kg of uranium in gaseous UF$_6$ form. The second configuration had hydrogen added between the fuel and the cavity wall. The third added structural material to the cavity wall. The critical mass increased to 12.86 kg and 29.2 kg of uranium, respectively. Four methods of controlling reactivity were examined.

Obviously, by varying wall moderator/reflector material, mixing in moderator (CF, He) in the gas phase the critical mass could be reduced somewhat, lowering enrichment degree will increase critical mass, but at least this should give an idea.

Raising temperature while keeping density constant should keep critical mass more or less constant (the effects of neutron thermalization at different T shouldn't change it much), but of course it will greatly increase the pressure.

So yes, from the neutronics point of view there is no obstacles for this type of reactor, and all comes down to confining hot gas / plasma and keeping it from melting containment vessel.

As for the magnetic confinement of such plasma I would like to note that at pressures around 100 bar and temperatures around 5000 K the degree of ionization of UF$_x$ gas is far from 100 %. For instance the paper 'Use of thermochemical modelling for the analysis of energy extraction in a gas-core fission reactor' lists 6% for 7000 K @ 100 bar. This means that magnetically confined plasma would 'leak' neutral molecules which would still inflict pressure on/ exchange heat with the containment vessel.

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there exists a follow up question to this one. physics.stackexchange.com/questions/71005/… –  anna v Jul 19 '13 at 13:45
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