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article imageAre we getting closer to achieving nuclear fusion?

By Tim Sandle     Nov 9, 2019 in Science
Oxford - Nuclear fusion is regarded by many as an environmentally-friendly and catastrophe- free option for the future. However, realizing this has remained out-of-reach. New funding aims to deliver electricity from a fusion reactor by 2040.
The funding comes from the British government, where a new round of money - £200 million ($240 million) has been pledged into an on-going project to realize nuclear fusion - essentially an attempt to replicate the processes of the Sun on Earth, and offering a limitless, clean form of energy.
Nuclear fusion differs from nuclear fission (which is how today's nuclear power stations work - ‘fission’ being a word for ‘splitting’ as with ‘splitting the atom’). Fission is relatively expensive; it also produces large quantities of radioactive waste and there are periodic safety concerns. Moreover, there have been various political disputes given the connection between developing nuclear fission as a cover to for the development of nuclear weapons (due to intertwined histories, similar technologies, and skill sets between the two technologies).
Nuclear fusion
The most promising method of making nuclear fusion power involves the fusion of a deuterium atom (which is an isotope of hydrogen, containing a single proton and neutron but no electron) with a tritium atom (a different isotope of hydrogen, consisting of one proton and two neutrons and two electrons outside). Energy is released as the result of the difference in mass between the products and reactants.
This image of the sun as viewed by the Soft X-Ray Telescope (SXT) onboard the orbiting Yohkoh satellite.
NASA Goddard Laboratory for Atmospheres
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Joint European Torus
The project is located in Oxfordshire, U.K. As well as the recent U.K. investment, the project has recently received 100 million Euros of European Union funding. This is the Joint European Torus (JET), which houses the world's largest fusion reactor and employs more than 500 people.
JET is the European Union's contribution to the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), which is an international nuclear fusion research and engineering megaproject. The aim is produce a fusion plasma equivalent to 500 megawatts (MW) of thermal output power, based on the principle of producing more thermal power from a fusion process than is used to heat the plasma, which is the key to a new, available source of energy.
Schematic of a hydrogen-boron fusion reactor.
Schematic of a hydrogen-boron fusion reactor.
UNSW Sydney
READ MORE: Essential science: Google is running cold fusion experiments
The U.K. finance is for developing a process called STEP or Spherical Tokomak for Energy Production; this centers on designing fusion happen involves a doughnut shaped vacuum chamber called a Tokomak. Inside, powerful magnets then control the reaction, which could one day produce vast amounts of electricity if maintained. The U.K. idea is to design an alternative shaped, spherical Tokamak, which will be more compact. The idea here is to one day enable future power plants to be located in towns and cities, utilizing the compact design.
Quoted by the BBC, Professor Ian Chapman, of the U.K. Atomic Energy Authority, said of the additional funding: "JET has been a shining example of scientific co-operation between EU members, and this news means that these mutually beneficial collaborations will continue, allowing us to do essential experiments on the path to delivering fusion power."
However, what the future holds post-Brexit is unclear for despite the U.K. cash injection, the project has relied heavily on European Union funding.
Even with the the U.K. work, ITER has been beset by long delays and budget overspend. This probably the project is unlikely to have a demonstration fusion power plant working by 2050.
More about Nuclear fusion, Nuclear power, Nuclear energy, Energy
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