European scientists have set a new record for the most energy generated from nuclear fusion, the latest breakthrough in a decades-long effort to produce energy using the reaction that drives the sun.
A team of researchers from the Eurofusion consortium produced 59 megajoules from a sustained five-second reaction — enough power to boil about 60 kettles — in an experiment at the Joint European Torus facility in Oxford, England.
“These historic results have brought us a huge step closer to overcoming one of the greatest scientific and engineering challenges of all,” said Ian Chapman, chief executive of the UK’s Atomic Energy Authority.
Founded in 1978, JET, a collaboration between EU member states, Switzerland, UK and Ukraine, is the world’s largest, most powerful operational “tokamak” machine. Developed by Soviet scientists in the 1950s, the design uses powerful magnets to hold a plasma of two hydrogen isotopes — deuterium and tritium — in place while heating it to temperatures hotter than the sun so that the atomic nuclei fuse and release energy.
In half a century of experiments around the world, scientists have failed to extract more energy from a fusion reaction than the energy-intensive system uses.
Arthur Turrell, whose book? The star builders The successful test, which more than doubles the previous record of 22 megajoules set by JET in 1997, was a major step forward. “In terms of power, that corresponds to about four wind turbines . † † that approaches the industrial scale”,
Unlike nuclear fission, when atoms are split, fusion does not produce significant radioactive waste. But the biggest challenge to commercializing fusion is how to sustain the reaction and prevent it from dying out.
This meant that sustaining power for five seconds was particularly important, Turrell said. “That may not sound very impressive, but five seconds is an incredibly long time on nuclear time scales,” he said.
The progress made at JET is expected to contribute to future experiments at Iter, the world’s largest nuclear fusion project, currently under construction in France at a cost of more than $20 billion.
“If we can hold fusion for five seconds, we can do it for five minutes and then five hours as we scale our operations in future machines,” said Tony Donné, head of the Eurofusion consortium that led the experiment.
Fusion energy has seen many skeptics of how long it has taken to make progress, but its promise as a tool to combat climate change has sparked increased interest in the past decade.
Fusion energy would emit no greenhouse gases and supplies of chemical inputs are essentially inexhaustible. There is about 5 g of deuterium in each tub of seawater, and while tritium is less accessible, it can be extracted from the common metal lithium, or generated in the reaction itself. A small glass of fuel could theoretically power a house for hundreds of years.
JET and Iter are two of several major government-funded fusion projects around the world, but private sector money has also poured into fusion energy start-ups. Total private sector funding had reached more than $3 billion by the end of 2021, with some of the firms aiming to deliver commercial strength by the 2030s.
George Freeman, the UK’s Science, Research and Innovation Minister, said the UK is committed to helping fusion energy succeed. “We are committed to making sure we include it in our energy mix and make it clear to the energy sector that this technology is coming.”