By Peter McLaren-Kennedy • 09 February 2022 • 20:18
The Joint European Torus (JET) experimental fusion machine based near Abingdon in Oxfordshire has enabled scientists to generate energy that released heat ten times hotter than the sun. A new record for generating energy from nuclear fusion, the same process that powers our Sun seen as a potential future source of near limitless power.
The experiment generated around 59 megajoules, or 11 Megawatts of energy in a five second burst, enough to power around 10,000 homes. Still in its infancy the amount of energy needed to conduct the experiment was more than what was produced, however it represents a major step forward in fusion reaction.
“These landmark results have taken us a huge step closer to conquering one of the biggest scientific and engineering challenges of them all,” said Professor Ian Chapman, Chief Executive of the UK Atomic Energy Agency that co-funds and operates JET.
How is the energy generated?
Unlike nuclear fission, which powers conventional nuclear reactors by splitting radioactive elements to release energy, fusion does the opposite. It forces two forms of hydrogen to fuse together releasing around four times more energy by weight of fuel than a nuclear fission reactor and four million times more than burning fossil fuels.
But containing the same reactions that power our Sun here on Earth is the tricky part.
JET uses a hollow doughnut shaped reactor vessel called a Tokamak to heat its fusion fuel – “heavy” hydrogen atoms deuterium and tritium – to 150 million degrees Centigrade.
This forms something called a plasma that’s around 10 times hotter than the Sun, making the reactor, for the few seconds it is running, the hottest place in our solar system.
Electromagnets surrounding the Tokamak prevent this charged soup of ions from touching the sides and stopping the whole reaction. Holding the plasma in this way allows fusion to occur, releasing energy. The latest results from JET prove that making fusion energy in this way is at least theoretically feasible.
“59 Megajoules of heat energy from fusion over a period of five seconds is a landmark in fusion research,” said Professor Ian Fells from the University of Newcastle.
Deemed by many to be the Holy Grail, commercial fusion energy is still open to debate although there been many incremental steps forward toward fusion power since the 1950’s.
Speaking about the results Professor Sue Ions, Nuclear Engineer and Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering said: “They give confidence that the prize of fusion energy is worth pursuing,” said
It’s a major boost for the €20bn (£16.9bn) International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) which is under construction in the south of France.
The project is a collaboration between the world’s major economies to build a scaled-up version of the JET experiment.
It’s seen as the full “reactor-scale” demonstration of the technology that engineers would require to learn how to build a commercial reactor.
Then UK EU project is not the only facility working on nuclear fusion, with the US National Ignition Facility (NIF), at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California succeeded in creating fusion last year by a different method of compressing a plasma using immensely powerful lasers.
And in the decades since large government-backed projects like JET, NIF and ITER were conceived many small, private fusion ventures have been springing up.
Super-rich investors like Jeff Bezos and venture capitalists keen to back the next revolution in low-carbon energy, but few have achieved fusion, let alone “break even” the point where more energy comes out of the reactor than has to go in to get fusion started.
Few think fusion could arrive before 2050, in time to address the climate crisis whilst others doubt it will ever happen.
With energy costs rising many will be taking a renewed look at nuclear fusion and in particular the results of this test, with the UK and EU scientists able to generate energy hotter than the sun.
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Originally from South Africa, Peter is based on the Costa Blanca and is a web reporter for the Euro Weekly News covering international and Spanish national news.
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