It may be decades yet before we heat our homes with fusion, but we are a step closer to putting a harness on starlight, Correspondent Geraint Vincent reports
The prospect of developing clean and cheap power by harnessing the reaction that powers the sun has taken a step forward after scientists in the UK set a new record for generating energy from nuclear fusion.
In what has been hailed as a landmark experiment, the Joint European Torus (JET), an experimental fusion machine in Oxfordshire, produced 59 megajoules of energy over five seconds, enough power to boil about 60 kettles.
It was more than double what was generated in similar tests in 1997.
“These landmark results have taken us a huge step closer to conquering one of the biggest scientific and engineering challenges of them all,” said Professor Ian Chapman, the chief executive of the UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA).
“It’s clear we must make significant changes to address the effects of climate change, and fusion offers so much potential.”
Fusion energy is based on the same principle by which stars create heat and light.
Atoms are combined rather than split, as they are in the case of reactions that drive existing nuclear power stations.
With no greenhouse gas emissions and abundant fuels, fusion can be a safe and sustainable part of the world’s future energy supply.
But harnessing and reining in the forces involved is a huge challenge, as at the heart of a fusion reactor is a super-hot cloud of electrically charged gas many times hotter than the sun’s core.
However, researchers, who hope fusion energy will become a sustainable, low-carbon energy means of tackling the global energy crisis, say it is a power worth striving for.
Researchers from the JET have been pioneering an innovative approach to harnessing the energy source for nearly 40 years.
In the latest experiment, scientists more than doubled previous records achieved in 1997 at the UKAEA site by using the same fuel mixture to be used in commercial fusion energy powerplants.
During this experiment, JET averaged a fusion power of around 11 megawatts (megajoules per second).
The previous energy record from a fusion experiment, achieved by JET in 1997, was 22 megajoules of heat energy.
Ian Chapman, the UKAEA’s CEO, said: “These landmark results have taken us a huge step closer to conquering one of the biggest scientific and engineering challenges of them all.
“It is reward for over 20 years of research and experiments with our partners from across Europe.
“It’s clear we must make significant changes to address the effects of climate change, and fusion offers so much potential."
The record was achieved by researchers from the EUROfusion consortium – 4,800 experts, students and staff from across Europe, co-funded by the European Commission.