For years and years, the old joke that “nuclear fusion is always 30 years away” held strong. No matter what “breakthroughs” scientists announced, the progress toward achieving commercial nuclear fusion was so painstakingly incremental and piecemeal it seemed that ever actually achieving ignition was a pipe dream more rooted in science fiction and thought experiments than the scientific method. But over the last year, the science of nuclear fusion has been advancing at a spectacular pace, and the reported breakthroughs are finally living up to their name. Just last week, scientists in the United Kingdom shattered existing records of energy produced by a sustained man-made fusion reaction, making it clear that commercial nuclear fusion is no longer a matter of “if” but “when.”
Researchers at Oxfordshire's Joint European Torus (JET) fusion project generated 59 megajoules of heat in a recent experiment. The five-second burst of fusion (a long time in nuclear fusion reaction terms) released an amount of energy equivalent to about 14 kilograms (about 32 pounds) of TNT. This stunning achievement more than doubled the previous record of 21.7 megajoules, set way back in 1997 – by the same facility. The facility produces fusion inside of a tokamak, a donut-shaped device designed to confine plasma through the use of enormous electromagnetic fields.
This remarkable achievement holds enormous potential for the global fight against climate change. Nuclear fusion has long been hailed as the “holy grail of clean energy.” If ‘ignition’ – a term that refers to a nuclear fusion reaction that emits more energy than it consumes – is achieved and repeated, nuclear fusion could be a virtually limitless and carbon-free form of energy production. What’s more, it runs no risk of nuclear meltdown and leaves no radioactive waste behind, unlike nuclear fission, which is the core technology currently running nuclear power plants. Plus, a nuclear fusion reaction – the merging of atoms – is several times more powerful than nuclear fission – the splitting of atoms.
Speaking about JET’s recent breakthrough, Professor Ian Chapman stated: “These landmark results have taken us a huge step closer to conquering one of the biggest scientific and engineering challenges of them all.” The chief executive of the UK Atomic Energy Authority went on to say: “It’s clear we must make significant changes to address the effects of climate change, and fusion offers so much potential.”
The JET is just one of many major tokamak experiments around the globe. The largest of these is ITER, located in the south of France. This 23,000-ton machine is a cooperative project funded and run by seven core members: China, the European Union, India, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and the United States. The project’s long-term goal is to produce commercial nuclear fusion, a goal that is looking much brighter and closer to fruition in the wake of JET’s own tokamak breakthrough. ITER is still under construction and is on track to achieve first plasma in 2025.
There has been a recent proliferation of nuclear fusion experiments, as private enterprises in the United States and the United Kingdom have gotten involved in funding and launching startups. Previously, the scale and cost of creating a nuclear fusion experiment left the scientific exploration largely to governmental bodies, but the newly promising profitability of nuclear fusion, as well as technological innovation, have changed the game. In addition to massive and expensive tokamaks, smaller-scale laser-induced fusion efforts have seen some major successes in recent years.
As the competition to achieve first ignition heats up and money flows into the sector, it’s more than likely that we will be seeing new breakthroughs and energy production records a lot more often in the near future. Nuclear fusion is no longer 30 years away – it’s right around the corner, and not a minute too late.
By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com
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