Observer  /  Energy  /  Science  /  Technology

A ‘big moment’ in nuclear fusion research is a step towards ‘safe and sustainable low-carbon energy’

Original publication for abc.net.au on 10 February 2022

The project is considered a “significant step forward”. (Supplied: UKAEA)

It was an experiment that generated enough energy to power 60 kettles.

But scientists have hailed it as a “big moment” in the development of nuclear fusion technology, and a significant step closer to providing an almost limitless source of clean energy.

Researchers at the Joint European Torus (JET) experiment in the United Kingdom managed to produce a record amount of heat energy over a five-second period, the UK Atomic Energy Authority said.

The 59 megajoules of sustained fusion energy produced were more than double the previous record of 21.7mj achieved there in 1997.

The agency said the result was “the clearest demonstration worldwide of the potential for fusion energy to deliver safe and sustainable low-carbon energy”.

“If we can maintain fusion for five seconds, we can do it for five minutes and then five hours as we scale up our operations in future machines,” said Tony Donne, program manager for EUROfusion.

“This is a big moment for every one of us and the entire fusion community.”

The results were a “huge step closer to conquering one of the biggest scientific and engineering challenges of them all”, said Ian Chapman, chief executive of the UK Atomic Energy Authority.

The JET facility is home to the world’s largest and most powerful operational tokamak — a donut-shaped device that is considered one promising method for performing controlled fusion.

Scientists who were not involved in the project believed it was a significant result, but still a very long way from achieving commercial fusion power.

Key points:

  • Researchers around the world have long been working on nuclear fusion technology
  • The latest experiment generated 59 megajoules of sustained fusion energy in five seconds
  • Scientists say it’s a “very exciting” development and a step towards generating electricity

Significant step towards power generation

Researchers around the world have long been working on nuclear fusion technology, trying different approaches.

The ultimate goal is to generate power the way the sun generates heat, by pressing hydrogen atoms so close to each other that they combine into helium, which releases torrents of energy.

Scientists hope that fusion reactors might one day provide a source of emissions-free energy without any of the risks of conventional nuclear power.

Matthew Hole, a professor at the Australian National University, said the JET experiment was a “significant step forward en route to power generation”.

But he said it was hard to say how long it would be until nuclear fusion would be used as a major energy source, or whether it would be widespread before the end of this century.

“Until you have demonstrated something commercially, it is very difficult to make a statement about whether or not it will get widespread adoption,” he told ABC News 24.

“What I would say is that climate change is an immediate pressing issue and it requires a multitude of solutions.

“And fusion promises a very large supply of base-load electricity with zero greenhouse gases — so it offers a lot.

“This is a promising development, and fusion has a lot of potential.”

Riccardo Betti, a fusion expert at the University of Rochester, said the achievement lay mainly in sustaining the reaction at high performance levels for five seconds, significantly longer than previously achieved in a tokamak.

The amount of power gained was still well below the amount needed to perform the experiment, he added.

But Carolyn Kuranz at the University of Michigan called the development “very exciting” and a step toward achieving “ignition”, or when the fuel can continue to “burn” on its own and produce more energy than what’s needed to spark the initial reaction.

The JET experiment’s success has also made researchers optimistic about another experimental nuclear fusion facility in France, called ITER.

ITER, which is expected to begin operation in 2026, uses the same technology as JET but is larger. It is backed by many European countries, the United States, China, Japan, India, South Korea and Russia.

“For the ITER Project, the JET results are a strong confidence builder that we are on the right track as we move forward toward demonstrating full fusion power,” said Bernard Bigot, the director general of ITER.

What is nuclear fusion?

  • It is the energy source of the sun and the stars
  • In a laboratory setting, it happens when two hydrogen isotopes are fused together
  • The process of fusion generates energy
  • It’s the opposite of fission, which generates energy by splitting atoms apart

Hopes tech could eventually lead to emissions-free energy

Ian Fells, an emeritus professor of energy conversion at the University of Newcastle in the United Kingdom, described the new record as a landmark in fusion research.

“Now it is up to the engineers to translate this into carbon-free electricity and mitigate the problem of climate change,” he said.

“Ten to 20 years could see commercialisation.”

Stephanie Diem of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, said the technology used by JET to achieve the result, using magnets to control ultra-hot plasma, show that harnessing fusion — a process that occurs naturally in the stars — is physically feasible.

“The next milestone on the horizon for magnetic fusion is to demonstrate scientific break-even, where the amount of energy produced from fusion reactions exceeds that going into the device,” she said.

That is one of the goals of the ITER facility, which is expected to start experiments in the mid 2030s.

“The idea is to try and generate enough scientific knowledge to produce a power plant perhaps in the early 2040s or 2050s,” Professor Hole said.

Rival teams are racing to perfect other methods for controlling fusion and have also recently reported significant progress.

AP

Posted 10 Feb 2022

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