Fusion reactors, long considered a potential solution to the world's energy needs, could be an economically viable way of generating electricity within just a few decades, a new study suggests.
British researchers say their new analysis, taking into account recent breakthroughs in superconducting technology, demonstrates the economic feasibility of fusion energy when compared with traditional nuclear power plants using fission.
The cost of energy generated by a fusion power plant could be similar to the costs involved in existing fission plants, scientists at Durham University and Culham Center for Fusion Energy in Oxfordshire say.
Their analysis of the costs of building, operating and decommissioning a fusion power station has been published in the journal Fusion Engineering and Design.
"Obviously we have had to make assumptions, but what we can say is that our predictions suggest that fusion won't be vastly more expensive than fission," says study leader Damian Hampshire of Durham's Center for Material Physics.
Electricity would be generated in a fusion reactor by heating plasma to a temperature about 100 million degrees Celsius, at which point hydrogen atoms would begin to merge, or fuse, releasing significant amounts of energy.
In a fission reactor, energy is created by splitting atoms at much lower temperatures, but the process creates a significant amount of radioactive waste.
Almost no such waste is created in a fusion reactor, the researchers point out.
In their study the researchers focused on recent advances in high-temperature superconductors, which could be the basis of the powerful magnets necessary to hold hot plasma in position inside a magnetic containment vessel, known as a tokamak, that forms the heart of a fusion reactor.
A project to build an International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor in the south of France is about a decade away from operation, they say.
The recent analysis could help policy makers and companies in the private sector consider investing more heavily in work on fusion energy, Hampshire says.
"While there are still some technological challenges to overcome we have produced a strong argument, supported by the best available data, that fusion power stations could soon be economically viable," he says.
"We hope this kick-starts investment to overcome the remaining technological challenges and speeds up the planning process for the possibility of a fusion-powered world."
The Energy Program of the Research Council UK commissioned the study.