Nuclear Fusion

UK’s nuclear fusion laboratory celebrates breakthrough with last-ever experiment

What’s happening? Nuclear fusion science achieved a milestone at the UK’s Joint European Torus (JET) laboratory, generating a record-breaking 69 MJ of energy over five seconds, setting a new world record and marking a significant advancement toward clean, limitless power. Fusion, emulating the process in stars, holds promise for abundant energy production without environmental impact. While fusion remains complex, requiring temperatures hotter than the sun, each experiment brings humanity closer to harnessing its potential. The achievement underscores the significance of international collaboration and the vital role of facilities like JET in advancing fusion research. Despite Brexit uncertainties, discussions continue for UK involvement in future fusion projects, signalling an ongoing commitment to sustainable energy. (BBC)

Why does this matter? Nuclear fusion has held great promise for decades, but development has been slow due to technological and scientific complexities. Nuclear fusion’s power supply does not fluctuate with weather conditions, unlike solar or wind power. The JET breakthrough marks the latest step forward after a series of positive developments in 2023. Researchers are now able to demonstrate the capabilities of nuclear fusion’s limitless, clean potential to investors and governments, presenting myriad technological opportunities in the long term.

The fusion process – Nuclear power plants that are used around the world utilise fission reactions, breaking apart atoms to unleash energy and smaller particles. Fusion, on the other hand, operates in reverse, merging smaller particles to form larger atoms. Although fusion has the potential to generate more energy without the accompanying radioactive waste produced by fission, scientists have yet to develop a practical method to exploit this process in power generation.

The JET experiment – In the JET experiment, atoms of deuterium and tritium – two stable isotopes of hydrogen – were fused within the plasma to yield helium, along with a substantial energy release. This mirrors the fusion reaction powering the sun. The experiment utilised a tokamak, a fusion reactor design that confines plasma within a toroidal shape using arrays of electromagnets.

Financial obstacles – Although the JET laboratory experiment was a success, the output of 69 MJ is small in scale and running costs are extremely high. Further, JET will now close after over 40 years of service. A replacement for the laboratory – once the recipient of substantial EU funding which was terminated last year due to Brexit – has not been announced in the UK. Instead, the government has pledged £650m ($821m) to national research programmes to scale fusion power.

Upcoming projects – The UK has also announced early-stage plans to build a Spherical Tokamak for Energy Production (STEP). This nuclear fusion power plant in Nottinghamshire is set to be operational by the 2040s. The plant will be delivered by a new nuclear body, UK Industrial Fusion Solutions. Meanwhile, the EU is investing heavily in fusion. The Bloc’s new laboratory, ITER, will house the world’s largest tokamak reactor. Some 35 countries have collaborated to build this “miniature sun”, believed to be “one of the most ambitious energy projects in the world today”. Heating its reactor requires 50 MW of power, enough to power 10,000 homes, but could return over 500 MW. The reactor has been hit by setbacks – the original cost of €5bn ($5.4bn) set in 2016 has quadrupled and full-scale experiments have been pushed back to 2035.

Encouraging investment – As nuclear fusion science advances, the market continues to grow, valued at $296bn in 2022. According to a report by the Fusion Industry Association, the industry received investments worth over $1.6bn between 2022-2023. Several countries, including France and the US, have announced financial packages for nuclear programmes.

 

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