European scientists have taken an important step in mastering a technology that could one day allow them to harness nuclear fusion, providing a clean and almost limitless source of energy, British officials said on Wednesday.
Researchers at the Joint European Torus experiment near Oxford managed to produce a record amount of thermal energy over a period of five seconds, the duration of the experiment, the UK Atomic Energy Authority has said .
The 59 megajoules of sustained fusion energy produced was more than double the previous record set in 1997.
The agency said the result was “the world’s clearest demonstration of the potential of fusion power to deliver safe and sustainable low-carbon energy.”
“If we can sustain fusion for five seconds, we can sustain fusion for five minutes and then five hours as we ramp up our operations in future machines,” said Tony Donne, program manager for EUROfusion. “This is a great moment for all of us and for the entire fusion community.”
Ian Chapman, CEO of Britain’s Atomic Energy Authority, said the results were “one step closer to conquering one of the greatest scientific and engineering challenges of all”.
Prince William has officially marked the end of the construction of the MAST (Mega Amp Spherical Tokamak) upgrade fusion experiment. (Photo: AP)
The facility, also known as JET, houses the world’s largest and most powerful operational tokamak – a doughnut-shaped device considered a promising method for performing controlled fusion.
Scientists not involved in the project thought this was a significant result, but still a long way from reaching commercial fusion power.
Researchers around the world have been working on nuclear fusion technology for a long time, trying different approaches. The ultimate goal is to generate energy the same way the sun generates heat, by squeezing hydrogen atoms so close together that they combine into helium, which releases torrents of energy.
Carolyn Kuranz of the University of Michigan called the development “very exciting” and a step towards “ignition”, or when the fuel can continue to “burn” on its own and produce more energy than is needed. is needed to trigger the initial reaction.
She said the results looked “very promising” for ITER, a much larger experimental fusion facility in the south of France that uses the same technology and is supported by many European countries, the United States, China, Japan, India, South Korea and Russia. It is expected to enter service in 2026.
Riccardo Betti, a fusion expert at the University of Rochester, said the key to success was keeping the reaction at high performance levels for five seconds, far longer than previously achieved in a tokamak.
The amount of power gained was still far below the amount needed to perform the experiment, he added.
Ian Fells, Emeritus Professor of Energy Conversion at Newcastle University, described the new record as a landmark in fusion research.
“It is now up to engineers to translate this into carbon-free electricity and mitigate the problem of climate change,” he said. “Ten to 20 years could see commercialization.”
Stephanie Diem of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, said the technology used by JET to achieve the result, using magnets to control ultra-hot plasma, shows that harnessing fusion – a process that naturally produced in the stars – is physically feasible.
“The next step on the horizon for magnetic fusion is to demonstrate the scientific break-even point, where the amount of energy produced from fusion reactions exceeds that which enters the device,” she said. .
Rival teams are battling to perfect other methods of fusion control and have also recently reported significant progress.
Scientists hope that fusion reactors could one day provide an emissions-free source of energy without any of the risks of conventional nuclear power.