A UK-based private venture has built a fusion reactor that can generate temperatures that are hotter than the center of the sun.
Tokamak Energy has successfully generated heat levels of 27 million degrees Fahrenheit or about 15 million degrees Celsius, taking humanity one more step closer toward achieving the holy grail of nuclear energy.
What Is Nuclear Fusion Energy?
Nuclear fusion reactors can create practically unlimited amounts of energy but without the radioactive waste or greenhouse gases that come with more conventional nuclear fission generators such as those at Fukushima and Chernobyl.
By using the same process that powers stars and hydrogen bombs, nuclear fusion relies on the collision of high-heat, high-pressure hydrogen atoms, which then separate into ions and electrons before fusing together to form helium.
In the process, the fusion of atoms generates massive amounts of energy, which can then be potentially harnessed for human consumption. A single spoonful of liquid hydrogen processed in a fusion reactor can generate the same amount of energy that 28 tons of coal can produce.
However, for deuterium and tritium, which are both found in hydrogen, to fuse, scientists first need to create the same conditions in which the process first occurred. They need to generate as much heat as there is in the center of the stars.
More specifically, deuterium and tritium require temperatures of 270 million degrees Fahrenheit to come together and release energy.
"Fusion energy is a major challenge but one that must be tackled," says David Kingham, co-founder of Tokamak Energy. "The world needs abundant, controllable, clean energy."
ST40 Nuclear Fusion Reactor
Tokamak Energy's ST40 is the third device out of a five-step plan toward a goal of making nuclear fusion energy commercially available in the UK in 12 years.
"We aim to make fusion energy a commercial reality by 2030," CEO Jonathan Carling says.
The donut-shaped ST40, which was commissioned in April 2017, is a compact spherical tokamak. It works by using a large current to twist magnetic fields and confine the hot plasma inside.
Specifically, ST40 employs a technique called merging compression, which involves running high currents through symmetrical magnetic coils. This generates two rings made of a gaseous soup of electrically charged particles called plasma.
When the coil current reaches zero, the plasma rings combine with each other to release extremely high amounts of heat and energy. A set of high-temperature superconducting magnets made from rare-earth barium copper oxide is used to confine the plasma and keep it from reaching the chamber's walls.
The Next Step For Fusion Energy
Tokamak Energy grew out of the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy, home of JET, the most powerful tokamak to date. In 2013, the company built its first prototype called the ST25. It was followed by the ST25 HTS in 2015, which was exclusively made with HTS magnets.
Its next goal is to reach a temperature of 180 million degrees Fahrenheit or seven times hotter than the core of the sun.
The company has raised £30 million or around $40 million in funds from various investors, including the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, Oxford Instruments, and Legal & General Capital.