Abington, United Kingdom:
Scientists in Britain announced on Wednesday that they had broken a previous record for generating fusion energy, calling it a “milestone” on the way to cheap, clean energy and a cooler planet.
Nuclear fusion is the same process the sun uses to generate heat. Proponents believe it could one day help tackle climate change by providing an abundant, safe and green source of energy.
A team at the Joint European Torus (JET) facility near Oxford in central England generated 59 megajoules of energy for five seconds during an experiment in December, more than doubling the 1997 record, according to the UK Atomic Energy Authority.
That’s about the power it takes to power 35,000 homes for the same time, five seconds, said Joe Milnes, JET’s chief of operations.
The results “are the clearest demonstration of the potential for fusion energy to deliver safe and sustainable low-carbon energy worldwide,” according to the UKAEA.
The donut-shaped machine used for the experiments is called a tokamak, and the JET site is the largest operational one in the world.
Inside, just 0.1 milligrams each of deuterium and tritium — both are isotopes of hydrogen, with deuterium also called heavy hydrogen — are heated to temperatures 10 times higher than the center of the sun to create plasma.
This is held in place using magnets as it spins, fusing together and releasing enormous energy as heat.
Fusion is inherently safe because it cannot start a runaway process.
Deuterium is freely available in seawater while tritium can be recovered as a by-product of nuclear fission.
Pound for pound (gram for gram) almost four million times more energy is released than burning coal, oil or gas, and the only waste product is helium.
Results announced Wednesday showed the ability to create fusion for five seconds, as JET’s copper wire magnets would overheat for longer than that.
A larger and more advanced version of JET is currently being built in southern France called ITER, where the Oxford data will prove vital when the site comes online, possibly as early as 2025.
ITER will be equipped with superconducting electromagnets that will allow the process to continue for longer, hopefully longer than 300 seconds.
Every year, around 350 scientists from EU countries plus Great Britain, Switzerland and Ukraine – and more from around the world – take part in JET experiments.
JET will soon pass the fusion baton to ITER, which is about 80 percent complete, Milnes said.
“If that works, the way we now think it will get the results we’ve had with JET, we can develop designs for power plants in parallel … we’re probably halfway” toward a viable merger, he said.
If all goes well at ITER, a prototype fusion power plant could be ready by 2050.
International cooperation on fusion energy has historically been close because, unlike the nuclear fission used in nuclear power plants, the technology cannot be used as a weapon.
The France-based mega project also involves China, the EU, India, Japan, South Korea, Russia and the US.
Tim Luce, chief of science and operations at ITER, said the project emerged in the 1980s from talks about nuclear disarmament between US President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
“And the only thing they did agree on was the use of fusion as a collaboration,” he told AFP.
“Somehow, fusion has had the scientific panache of bringing disparate government agencies together and actually choosing to work together on them.”
Despite dozens of tokamaks having been built since they were first invented in Soviet Russia in the 1950s, none have yet managed to produce more energy than is put into it.
The latest results consume about three times the amount of energy produced.
Ian Fells, professor emeritus of energy conversion at Newcastle University, said Wednesday’s result was a “landmark in fusion research”.
“Now it’s up to the engineers to translate this into zero-carbon electricity and mitigate the problem of climate change,” added Fells, who is not involved in the project.
(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by DailyExpertNews staff and has been published from a syndicated feed.)