Nearly unlimited clean energy could be a reality thanks to nuclear fusion
02/18/2022 // Cassie B. // Views

Scientists are growing closer to taking advantage of the same source of energy that powers the sun and may one day give us a nearly unlimited source of clean power in the form of nuclear fusion.

Researchers at the Joint European Torus (JET) recently set a heat record for the greatest sustained nuclear fusion reactor on record. It registered at 59 megajoules of heat, which is more than double the previous record. Although the flash of heat only lasted for five seconds, it was an incredibly promising moment in the quest for cleaner power and marked a significant achievement after more than 20 years of testing and adjusting to find the right approach.

It all took place inside the JET tokamak, a circular reactor that resembles a donut. JET is a part of the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy near Oxford, England, and it is the UK’s national lab for nuclear fusion research.

In nuclear fusion, two super-heated lightweight atomic nuclei are combined to create a heavier atomic nucleus to release a significant amount of energy. In this example, hydrogen atoms are combined to create helium. Then, the ionized gases within the JET were heated to a temperature that is 10 times higher than that of the sun – 150 million degrees Celsius.

EUROfusion CEO Tony Donne said: "Our experiment showed for the first time that it's possible to have a sustained fusion process using exactly the same fuel mix planned for future fusion power plants."

UK Atomic Energy Authority chief executive Dr. Ian Chapman told The Guardian: "These landmark results have taken us a huge step closer to conquering one of the biggest scientific and engineering challenges of them all. It’s clear we must make significant changes to address the effects of climate change, and fusion offers so much potential.”


Nuclear fusion is safer and produces far less waste than the nuclear fission used in nuclear power

In the JET experiment, scientists combined tritium and deuterium, two isotopes of hydrogen, to create helium gas. The hydrogen isotopes are contained within the tunnel of the tokamak by a powerful magnetic field, then superheated until they reach a temperature far greater than that of the sun. This causes the nuclei of the atoms to smash together in a reaction known as nuclear fusion, generating a huge amount of energy relative to the amount of fuel used.

This is not the same process used for nuclear power, which relies on fission, or splitting atoms. Nuclear fission creates waste that can be radioactive for tens of thousands of years and is highly hazardous in accidents, such as the Fukushima disaster that occurred in Japan in 2011.

Fusion is far safer and produces very little waste. It only needs a small amount of fuel, which can come from abundant natural sources like elements found in sea water.

The University of Cambridge’s Tony Roulstone explained: "The energy you can get out of the fuel deuterium and tritium is massive. For example, powering the whole of current UK electrical demand for a day would require 0.5 tonnes of deuterium, which could be extracted from seawater -- where its concentration is low but plentiful."

The team’s results prove that nuclear fusion is a very real possibility and could well be a viable source of clean power. However, experts caution that despite the promising results, mastering nuclear fusion so it can be used as an everyday source of energy could be a long way off.

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