Why Should You Care About the Recent Breakthrough in Fusion in the UK?

It will affect the vehicle you drive, the way you cook, heat your home

Courtesy of EUROfusion — Interior of Joint European Torus fusion reactor

Until now, we knew that fusion could be attained in reactors. We did not know if it could be sustained for periods required to produce electric power. February 9, 2022 changed that. The UK Atomic Energy Authority’s Joint European Torus (JET) facility in Oxford showed that fusion reactors can continuously create burning fusion for significant periods. This one ran for 5 seconds. Although that might sound short, it is long compared to the last major trial.

That trial was at the Lawrence Livermore Lab’s National Ignition Facility (NIF) last year. It released an enormous amount of energy but it only lasted 100 trillionths of a second. A recent journal article concludes that this produced burning plasma. That is, the reaction was self-sustaining. If the system had been supplying additional fuel, this could have been quite the energetic event. But NIF was not designed as a power plant. It is for fundamental research.

The 5 second result from JET provides support for the ongoing work at ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor) for its much larger operation. Beyond achieving the burning plasma, JET demonstrated that the materials chosen for lining the walls of the reaction chamber will work. It also showed that the plasma could be sufficiently compressed and supported by the magnetic field so that it did not destroy the walls. This is vital given that the temperatures inside the plasma are beyond those of the Sun.

Fusion moved past a major milestone with the recent JET achievement. While this is good news, it is fueling the media to shed more light on fusion. And that means that the teams at all the R&D centers, private and public (government), are working with added pressure from citizens and agencies to bring their projects to fruition. Provided they remain focused in the midst of this new-found popularity, it will likely accelerate the world toward fusion as a new source of clean electric power.



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