Fusion firm raises the temperature on clean energy

One of the biggest stumbling blocks keeping us from adopting fusion as a source of cleaner power is the tremendous difficulty in achieving high temperatures needed for plasma to form.

For many years, scientists have been feeling the heat, trying to crack achieving high-temperature plasma in a way which can allow fusion to happen. The issues associated with doing so are obvious – fusion can only happen at temperatures of at leas 15 million degrees celsius, within secure reactors which can withstand such heat.

To make an analogy with my time in the jet engine business, first plasma is like a first flight for a new design. We will confirm all our systems work as expected, before we ‘turn on the afterburners’ to reach 100-million-degree plasma temperature.

– Jonathan Carling, Tokamak Energy CEO

Fortunately, Tokamak Energy, a firm specialising in fusion, claims to have got close to achieving 100 million-degree plasma using a machine dubbed the ST40. Such developments could revolutionise modern science and bring us one step closer to being able to use fusion as a reliable source of power.

The power of atoms themselves

Fusion occurs in nature most clearly with the Sun using its immense gravity to effectively squash hydrogen gas nuclei together to form one helium atom. This nuclear fusion reaction creates tremendous amounts of heat and light, and the Sun has been repeating this process for billions of years without fail. Businesses such as Tokamak Energy are trying to replicate this, building reactors which serve as something of a mini-Sun.

Tokamak Energy is a spin-off of the Culham Centre of Fusion Technology in Oxfordshire, and uses a spherical tokamak, a hollow device which uses a magnetic field, to confine plasma into a specific shape. The firm aims to heat its ST40 to temperatures in excess of 100 million degrees, claiming that no other privately-funded reactor has ever managed to achieve this.

Dr Greg Brittles, a Senior HTS Magnet Engineer at Tokamak Energy, revealed recently that the firm plans to generate a force using its magnets which is comparable to twice the pressures found at the bottom of the deepest ocean trenches in the world. It’s a crushing pressure so intense that the ST40 should hopefully demonstrate how fusion can be achieved not just on paper but finally for real.

The future of fusion

If firms such as Tokamak Energy are successful in their endeavours, we may have just opened the door onto a clean source of power which could change the way we power the world. The UK Government is committed to making fusion power part of its 10-Point Plan for a green industrial revolution, and when you assess fusion’s green credentials, you’ll see why.

That’s because fusion doesn’t produce toxic substances such as CO2 or other greenhouse gases often associated with the burning of hydrocarbons. Unlike fission reactors, fusion reactors don’t produce long-lived radioactive waste, and the primary by-product is helium, an inert and non-toxic element.

Cost and practicality are the main issues which have stopped us from turning to fusion sooner, but increased government interest and funding could be just the ingredient needed to finally create the joined-up approach needed to ensure fusion can become a viable source of power in the future.

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