Major breakthrough on nuclear fusion energy – FFA

The prospect of harnessing nuclear fusion – the phenomenon that powers the sun – to create abundant safe, sustainable energy for the world has received a major boost, thanks to scientists at an experimental facility in Oxford.

They were able to double the record for sustained energy from fusion in an experiment at the JET (Joint European Torus). This gives rise to the possibility of using the technology for reliable baseload electricity. This could be used to complement renewable energies like solar and wind to create a clean and low-carbon grid.

While existing nuclear power plants employ fission (‘splitting the atom’) to produce high amounts of heat that in turn generates electricity via steam turbines, fusion works by harnessing the heat released when atoms are fused together. Because it doesn’t produce a chain reaction and produces no radioactive waste, it is safer than fission.

Two hydrogen isotopes can be used to fuel fusion: deuterium, which can also be distilled from water, and tritium which is created during the initial fusion reaction with lithium, which is widely available in the required quantities.

Over 50 years of research has been done on the potential of nuclear fusion. Progress has been slow with fluctuating funding levels. The latest success is expected boost investment from commercial businesses. It also encourages the construction of larger pilots at a new French fusion facility. This is being constructed under the auspices of ITER – an international collaboration between China, the European Union, India, Japan, Korea, Russia, the UK and the US.

While fusion as an option for large-scale electricity supply is still far off, it is evident that these geopolitical adversaries are, at the very least, working together on research.

Main image: JET interior. Credit: UKAEA/EURofusion