The UK just took a big step towards a working nuclear fusion reactor

3 May 2017

Illustration of an atom. Image: ktsdesign/Shutterstock

The UK is the latest country to join the race to provide the first working nuclear fusion reactor, with one company finally achieving ‘first plasma’.

The concept of nuclear fusion – a contained nuclear reaction that could produce nearly limitless, clean and cheap energy – is slowly moving from the world of science fiction to science fact.

Earlier this year, a team of Canadian scientists issued a report to the country’s government that laid out how, with the right funding, Canada could have its first reactor by the year 2030.

However, the science behind producing the necessary reaction is not only incredibly complicated, but the ways in which various research bodies are trying to achieve it are very different.

So far, one of the most promising examples was produced by a South Korean research team in December of last year, resulting in a world record for maintaining a quantity of high-performance plasma for 70 seconds.

Now, the UK is joining the game with Tokamak Energy turning on its own ST40 reactor for the first time.

By achieving ‘first plasma’ – the same plasma that generates the huge quantities of energy within our own sun – the reactor is now technically up and running.

Fusion power in years, not decades

The ST40 has the goal of producing a record-breaking plasma temperature of 100m degrees Celsius in 2018 – or seven times that of the sun – for a privately funded venture.

Starting off though, the reactor will aim for the temperature of just one sun’s core (at 15m degrees Celsius) in autumn of this year.

At or above this temperature is crucial, Tokamak Energy said, as charged particles that naturally repel can be forced together to induce the controlled fusion reaction.

It will also prove the vital point that commercially viable fusion power can be produced within compact spherical tokamaks.

Much like the Canadian scientists’ aim, Tokamak Energy hopes to have fusion power on the UK’s energy grid by the year 2030.

“Today is an important day for fusion energy development in the UK, and the world,” said Dr David Kingham, CEO of Tokamak Energy.

“We are unveiling the first world-class controlled fusion device to have been designed, built and operated by a private venture. The ST40 is a machine that will show fusion temperatures – 100m degrees – are possible in compact, cost-effective reactors. This will allow fusion power to be achieved in years, not decades.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic