Scientists set sustained fusion energy record

Scientists in the UK have set a new record for energy generated by nuclear fusion, an achievement heralded as a significant step toward conquering one of the biggest scientific and engineering challenges.

 Culham's Joint European Torus (JET): The world's largest fusion facility
Culham's Joint European Torus (JET): The world's largest fusion facility
fusion energy
Culham's Joint European Torus (JET): The world's largest fusion facility

Researchers from the EUROfusion consortium more than doubled previous records achieved in 1997 at the UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) site in Oxford using the same fuel mixture of deuterium-tritium (D-T) to be used by commercial fusion energy powerplants.

In total, 59 megajoules of sustained fusion energy was demonstrated over the duration of the five-second experiment by scientists and engineers working on the Joint European Torus (JET), which is the world’s largest and most powerful operational tokamak. During this experiment, JET averaged a fusion power of around 11MW.

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The previous energy record from a fusion experiment, achieved by JET in 1997, was 22 megajoules of heat energy. The peak power of 16MW achieved briefly in 1997 has not been surpassed in recent experiments, as the focus has been on sustained fusion power.

The record and scientific data from these experiments are a major boost for ITER, the fusion research mega-project supported by seven members – China, the European Union, India, Japan, Korea, Russia and the USA – based in the south of France.

In a statement, Dr Bernard Bigot, director general of ITER, said: “A sustained pulse of deuterium-tritium fusion at this power level – nearly industrial scale – delivers a resounding confirmation to all of those involved in the global fusion quest. For the ITER Project, the JET results are a strong confidence builder that we are on the right track as we move forward toward demonstrating full fusion power.”

“JET has been upgraded over the years to mimic many of the systems that will be used in ITER,” added Dr Amy Gandy, senior lecturer in Nuclear Materials Engineering at Sheffield University. “These results therefore give confidence that ITER will achieve the promise of producing a self-sustained plasma capable of producing more energy that is put in.”

Fusion promises a near-limitless green electricity source for the long term, using small amounts of fuel that can be sourced worldwide from inexpensive materials. The fusion process brings together atoms of light elements like hydrogen at high temperatures to form helium and release tremendous energy as heat. Fusion is inherently safe in that it cannot start a run-away process.

Prof. Ian Chapman, UKAEA’s CEO, said the landmark results take scientists and engineers a huge step closer to conquering one of the biggest scientific and engineering challenges.

Commenting on today’s announcement, Prof Robin Grimes FRS FREng, Steele Professor of Energy Material at Imperial College London, said: “This is further confirmation that the practical physics of fusion can deliver the energy levels we need to decarbonise our energy needs, not only for electricity but also heat. While there are many engineering challenges to overcome, this provides decision makers with the evidence and thus the confidence needed to keep up the momentum.”