In the latest step to advance nuclear fusion technology, the world’s biggest reactor has just opened for business in Japan. This follows a huge influx in investment from the private sector, as companies and academic institutions around the globe race to achieve commercial-scale nuclear fusion. Things are looking more optimistic following a breakthrough last year and another in the summer, after decades of failed attempts. The technology is also gaining government backing, with the U.S. announcing a global nuclear fusion strategy at the COP28 climate summit in the UAE this month.
Nuclear fusion is the reaction that takes place in the sun and other stars. It requires the merging of two light nuclei to form a single heavier nucleus. This process releases energy as the total mass of the resulting single nucleus is less than the mass of the two original nuclei, with the leftover mass being released as energy. Fusion reactions take place in a plasma state — a hot, charged gas made of positive ions and free-moving electrons. Scientists first explored the potential for nuclear fusion in the 1930s, but it is not until recently that researchers have achieved breakthroughs in the field, bringing us closer to developing effective fusion technology.
If nuclear fusion was achieved on a big enough scale, it could provide almost limitless clean, safe, and affordable energy to respond to the world’s rising energy demand. It could produce around four times more energy per kilogram than nuclear fission – the current form of nuclear power production, and almost four million times more energy than burning oil or coal. Most fusion machines under development will use deuterium, which can be extracted inexpensively from seawater, and tritium, which can potentially be produced from the reaction of fusion-generated neutrons with naturally abundant lithium.
Recently, the world’s biggest operational experimental nuclear fusion reactor was inaugurated in Naka, north of Tokyo, in Japan. The six-storey-high, JT-60SA reactor consists of a doughnut-shaped “tokamak” vessel, which will contain swirling plasma that’s heated to 200 million degrees Celsius. The project, by the European Union and Japan, will be tested ahead of a larger project – the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), which is currently under construction in France. The team hopes to replicate the process that takes place in the sun by stimulating the fusion of the coax hydrogen nuclei into one heavier element, helium, thereby releasing energy in the form of light and heat.
The project has been criticized for being over budget, behind schedule, and having to overcome technical challenges. However, if successful it could result in the development of bigger reactors and, ultimately, abundant clean energy. The project has been developed by over 500 scientists and engineers and 70 companies across the two regions. Kadri Simson, the EU energy commissioner, said the JT-60SA was “the most advanced tokamak in the world” and said its launch marked “a milestone for fusion history”. Simson added, “Fusion has the potential to become a key component for energy mix in the second half of this century.”
Until recently, the development of fusion technology was in the hands of state governments, beyond the scope of private companies. However, a recent breakthrough from a U.S. state-funded project has encouraged the private sector to invest in more economically accessible fusion projects. While the ITER project presents a major opportunity for development, a breakthrough earlier this year demonstrated that it may no longer be the most promising technology for nuclear fusion. In December last year, the National Ignition Facility, or NIF, at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory announced that it had successfully carried out a nuclear fusion experiment in which a split-second 2.05-megajoule laser shot produced 3.15 megajoules of energy output. This marked the first time that a net energy gain had been achieved through fusion outside of a thermonuclear detonation.
NIF focused 192 beams onto a millimetre-scale hydrogen fuel target to achieve the fusion process. Ignition is the process in which a nuclear fusion reaction produces a greater amount of energy than it absorbs, something that the conventional tokamak reactor has yet to successfully achieve. In July this year, scientists at NIF replicated the fusion ignition breakthrough, producing an even higher energy yield than that of December, showing huge potential for private companies in the field of nuclear fusion.
In addition to greater private investment in the sector, this month at the COP28 climate summit, U.S. Climate Envoy John Kerry announced a global nuclear fusion strategy. The U.S. intends to work in collaboration with other governments to advance nuclear fusion. Kerry stated, “We are edging ever closer to a fusion-powered reality. And at the same time, yes, significant scientific and engineering challenges exist… “Careful thought and thoughtful policy is going to be critical to navigate this.” This follows the announcement of a partnership between the U.S. and U.K. in November, aimed at speeding up global fusion energy development. The combination of greater private funding and cross-state collaboration is expected to spur advancements in nuclear fusion technology, bringing us closer to achieving abundant, clean power.
By Felicity Bradstock for Oilprice.com
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