Scientists have made progress in harnessing energy from stars through a new nuclear fusion heat achievement.
Researchers have achieved a significant milestone in the development of a sustainable energy source using the immense power of stars, setting a new global record for energy generated through fusion of atoms.
Scientists at JET, a fusion reactor located at the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy in Oxfordshire, were able to produce 69 megajoules of energy for five seconds using only 0.2 milligrams of fuel in their last fusion experiment at the facility.
The burst of energy, equivalent to 16.5kg of TNT, was described as a “fitting swansong” for the project, which has pioneered technology for future commercial fusion reactors since it began operating in 1983. It beat the previous record of 59 megajoules of heat, set by the same facility in 2022.
In the event that fusion energy is proven to be feasible on a large scale, it has the potential to fuel a movement towards environmentally-friendly energy. A single kilogram of fusion fuel holds approximately 10 million times the energy of a kilogram of coal, oil, or gas, and fusion reactions do not emit greenhouse gases.
The scientific operations of the JET facility concluded in December. Over the next 17 years, researchers will thoroughly document the decommissioning process in order to aid in the construction and deconstruction of fusion reactors in the future. A team of over 300 scientists and engineers from a group known as EUROfusion were involved in the experiments.
Professor Ian Chapman, the head of the UK Atomic Energy Authority, stated that the JET facility has functioned under conditions similar to those of a power plant and its impact will be significant in the development of future power plants. He also emphasized its crucial role in promoting a secure and environmentally-friendly future.
The Culham Centre for Fusion Energy has a reactor called a tokamak. This type of structure utilizes strong magnetic fields to contain plasmas, which are extremely ionized gases, in a circular shape. These gases are heated up to 150 million degrees Celsius, which is approximately 10 times hotter than the core of the sun.
The tokamak’s intense environment causes fusion reactions, where atomic nuclei merge to create new elements and release vast amounts of energy. Stars also use these reactions as a source of energy, but their gravitational force eliminates the need for extreme temperatures.
Studies conducted at JET have investigated the potential of utilizing two types of hydrogen, referred to as deuterium and tritium, as a source of fuel. Through fusion reactions, these two elements combine to create helium gas. The remarkable surge of energy, announced on Thursday, provides optimism for Iter, a bigger fusion initiative currently under construction in southern France. This reactor aims to begin fusing fuel in 2035, with the objective of producing more energy than is required to heat the plasma.
The Minister for Nuclear and Networks, Andrew Bowie, stated that the JET’s last fusion experiment is a suitable conclusion to the groundbreaking work that has been ongoing since 1983. He also mentioned that we are now closer than ever to achieving fusion energy.
If the upcoming experimental fusion facilities, like Iter, confirm the practicality of the technology on a large scale, scientists intend to construct a European prototype plant that produces more energy than it consumes.
Dr Aneeqa Khan, a research fellow in nuclear fusion at the University of Manchester, said: “These results are really exciting for the fusion community and a great end to the operations of JET which has provided the scientific community with really valuable data over its lifetime, feeding into the designs for new projects.
“Nevertheless, in terms of commercial fusion, there was still a lack of net energy generation.”
She stated: “While this is a significant scientific achievement, we are still far from achieving commercial fusion. It is crucial to educate and prepare a large number of individuals with the necessary skills to work in this field. I am optimistic that this technology will be utilized in the second half of this century.”