UK lab achieves ‘landmark results’ in sustained fusion energy

10 Feb 2022

Interior of the UK's Joint European Torus (JET), the largest operational tokamak machine in the world. Image: Eurofusion

The results could be a ‘major step forward’ in using fusion as a clean, efficient energy source and tackling the global energy crisis.

Scientists at a UK lab claim to have hit a milestone by reaching new records of sustained fusion energy.

Researchers from the Eurofusion consortium were able to generate 59 megajoules of sustained fusion energy over five seconds, more than double the previous record set in 1997, the UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) said yesterday (9 February).

Future Human

The test was conducted using the Joint European Torus (JET), the largest operational tokamak machine in the world, which is based in Oxford. The researchers used the same fuel mixture to be used by commercial fusion energy power plants.

Nuclear fusion – like the reactions that power stars such as our sun – brings together atoms of light elements like hydrogen at high temperatures to form helium and release tremendous energy as heat. UKAEA said fusion is inherently safe as it cannot start a run-away process. This makes it easier to control than nuclear fission, which involves the splitting of atoms.

‘These landmark results have taken us a huge step closer to conquering one of the biggest scientific and engineering challenges of them all’
– IAN CHAPMAN

While fission is easier to achieve and harness, fusion has the potential to release vast amounts of clean energy. The UKAEA said the latest development is a “major step forward” on fusion energy’s roadmap to become a low-carbon way to tackle the global energy crisis.

“These landmark results have taken us a huge step closer to conquering one of the biggest scientific and engineering challenges of them all,” UKAEA CEO Ian Chapman said. “It’s clear we must make significant changes to address the effects of climate change, and fusion offers so much potential.

“We’re building the knowledge and developing the new technology required to deliver a low-carbon, sustainable source of baseload energy that helps protect the planet for future generations. Our world needs fusion energy,” Chapman added.

During the experiment, JET averaged a fusion power – or energy per second – of around 11MW. The previous record test in 1997 briefly achieved 16MW, which has not been surpassed in recent experiments as the focus has been on sustained fusion power.

The scientific data from JET could provider a major boost for a massive fusion project called the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), which entered assembly phase in July 2020. This project is supported by China, the EU, India, Japan, South Korea, Russia and the US. From a base in France, it is set to begin its first plasma tests in 2025.

The Eurofusion consortium consists of 4,800 experts, students and staff from across Europe, co-funded by the European Commission.

The National Centre for Plasma Science and Technology at Dublin City University (DCU) is one of the Eurofusion members. DCU’s Prof Miles Turner, who has been involved with the project, said the latest development is a “big step forward” for fusion power.

“This outcome is the result of 20 years of work by the Eurofusion team, with a significant contribution from DCU. Even more important than the headlines is that these results give confidence that the much larger ITER experiment will perform as intended when it starts in 2025.”

Updated, 4.20pm, 11 February 2022: This article was updated to include comments from Prof Miles Turner.

Don’t miss out on the knowledge you need to succeed. Sign up for the Daily Brief, Silicon Republic’s digest of need-to-know sci-tech news.

Leigh Mc Gowran is a journalist with Silicon Republic

editorial@siliconrepublic.com