There are two kinds of nuclear reactors. A fission reactor — the one we are most familiar with — splits atoms apart, releasing tremendous amounts of energy in the process. A fusion reactor forces atoms together, releasing tremendous amounts of energy in the process. Mankind has known how to produce electricity using nuclear fission for 80 years. Most of the time, it works pretty well. The downside is, it produces tremendous amounts of highly toxic waste products. Occasionally, things go wrong and we wind up with epic disasters like Chernobyl and Fukushima.
A fusion reactor could provide virtually unlimited clean energy without the dangerous side effects. There’s only one thing holding it back. In order to work, scientists have to figure out how to heat the inside to around 100 million degrees Celsius — seven times hotter than the center of our sun. That’s the point at which hydrogen atoms begin to fuse into helium, unleashing limitless, clean energy in the process. The raw materials for are simply salt and water, not enriched uranium. Helium is the only waste product.
Researchers have been working on the fusion reactor challenge for decades and some progress has been made. Scientists from MIT broke the record for plasma pressure back in October, and in December, South Korean researchers became the first to sustain “high performance” plasma — a blob of hot gasses heated to 300 million degrees Celsius — for 70 seconds. In Germany, a new type of fusion reactor called the Wendelstein 7-X stellerator has been able to successfully control plasma.
In the UK, Tokamak Energy says it activated its newest fusion reactor, the ST40, and it has already managed to achieve “first plasma” within its core. “Today is an important day for fusion energy development in the UK, and the world,” said David Kingham, CEO of Tokamak Energy, the company behind the ST40.
“We are unveiling the first world-class controlled fusion device to have been designed, built and operated by a private venture. The ST40 is a machine that will show fusion temperatures — 100 million degrees — are possible in compact, cost effective reactors. This will allow fusion power to be achieved in years, not decades.”
No material known to science that can withstand such enormous temperatures, so researchers use powerful magnetic fields to contain the plasma. Next up for Tokamak Energy is installing a full set of magnetic coils inside ST40. Later this year, it will try to get temperatures inside the ST40 up to 15 million degrees Celsius. From there, it hopes to achieve the 100 million degree threshold sometime in 2018. If it can, the promise of clean electrical power from fission could be attained as early as 2030.
Moving from the laboratory to commercial application is always fraught with setbacks, delays, and failures. The promise of virtually unlimited clean energy is one that has fired the imaginations of physicists for generations. It might be a little early to invest your life savings in Tokamak Energy, but you might want to keep an eye on the company. Nuclear fusion could be the final stake through the heart of the fossil fuel industry.
Source: Science Alert