World record for energy from nuclear fusion set

Inside of JET reactor

A new world record for energy generated by nuclear fusion – the process that powers the stars – has been set at the UK-based JET laboratory.

Nuclear fusion is considered the holy grail of energy as it could potentially produce vast amounts of clean power.

European scientists working at the site said “we have achieved things we’ve never done before”.

The result came from the lab’s final experiment after more than 40 years of fusion research.

Andre Bowie, UK Minister for Nuclear, called it a “fitting swansong”.

Nuclear fusion is the process that powers the Sun. It works by heating and forcing tiny particles together to make a heavier one which releases useful energy.

If successfully scaled up to commercial levels it could produce endless amounts of clean energy without carbon emissions. And crucially unlike wind and solar energy would not be at the mercy of weather conditions.

But as Dr Aneeqa Khan, Research Fellow in Nuclear Fusion, University of Manchester explained, this is not straightforward.

“In order for the atoms to fuse together on Earth, we need temperatures ten times hotter than the Sun – around 100 million celsius, and we need a high enough density of the atoms and for a long enough time,” she explained.

The experiments produced 69 megajoules of energy over five seconds (11 megawatts of power). That is only enough energy for 4 – 5 hot baths – so not a lot.

It is clear we are still a long way off from nuclear fusion power plants, but with every experiment it is bringing us one step closer.

UK Minister for Nuclear and Networks, Andrew Bowie, said: “JET’s final fusion experiment is a fitting swansong after all the ground-breaking work that has gone into the project since 1983. We are closer to fusion energy than ever before thanks to the international team of scientists and engineers in Oxfordshire.”

The Joint European Torus (JET) facility, was constructed in Culham in Oxford in the late 1970s and until the end of last year was the world’s most advanced experimental fusion reactor. All experiments ceased in December.

Although based in the UK it was funded predominantly by the EU nuclear research programme, Euratom, and operated by the UK Atomic Energy Agency. For four decades it hosted scientists from the UK, Europe, Switzerland and Ukraine.

The reactor was only meant to be operational for a decade or so but repeated successes saw its life extended. The result announced today is triple what was achieved in similar tests back in 1997.

Prof Ambrogio Fasoli, programme manager at EUROfusion, said: “Our successful demonstration… instils greater confidence in the development of fusion energy. Beyond setting a new record, we achieved things we’ve never done before and deepened our understanding of fusion physics.”

Scientists celebrate in control room of JET
Image caption,Scientists celebrate the final experiments at JET

But the future role of the UK in European fusion research has been unclear. Since Brexit the UK has been locked out of the Euratom programme and last year the government made the decision not to re-join.

Instead the government said it would commit £650m to national research programmes instead.

The European successor to JET is a facility called ITER that will be based in France. Originally planed to be open in 2016 and cost around 5bn euros, its price has since roughly quadrupled and its start-up pushed back to 2025. Full-scale experiments are now not foreseen until at least 2035.

Although no reason was given for the UK government’s decision not to re-join Euratom the delays with ITER are believed to have played a part. At the time a spokesperson for the Department of Energy Security and Net Zero said: “Given delays to association and the direction of travel of these EU programmes, an alternative approach gives the UK the best opportunity to deliver our fusion strategy.”

The government is now hoping to build the world’s first fusion power plant in Nottinghamshire with operations beginning in the 2040s. The Spherical Tokamak for Energy Production (STEP) project will be delivered by a new nuclear body, the UK Industrial Fusion Solutions. https://mauapalagi.com/

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