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A surprising effect created by a 19th century device called a Helmholz coil offers clues about how to achieve controlled nuclear fusion at Sandia National Laboratories' powerful Z machine.

A Helmholz coil produces a magnetic field when electrified. In recent experiments, two Helmholz coils, installed to provide a secondary magnetic field to Z's huge one, unexpectedly altered and slowed the growth of the magneto-Rayleigh-Taylor instabilities, an unavoidable, game-ending plasma distortion that usually spins quickly out of control and has sunk past efforts to achieve controlled fusion. "Our experiments dramatically altered the nature of the instability," said Sandia physicist Tom Awe. "We don't yet understand all the implications, but it's become a different beast, which is an exciting physics result."

The experiments were reported in December in Physical Review Letters.

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