The Engineer Q&A: nuclear fusion power

If you’ve ever wondered how nuclear fusion power might become a commercial reality or what exactly happens to the tax money funnelled into Europe’s big fusion research projects then this is your opportunity to find out.

We’ve lined up experts from world’s largest fusion experiment, JET, and its planned follow-up project ITER, to answer your questions.

Fusion power has the potential to help solve the problems of our ever-increasing need for energy and our reliance on greenhouse gas-emitting methods of producing electricity. And compared to current nuclear power generation (based on fission), its waste products are more manageable and remain radioactive for much less time.

The problem is that no one has produced more power from a fusion reactor than is put in to operate it (net generation). JET (Joint European Torus), based at the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy in Oxfordshire, holds the record for producing the most amount of fusion power – 16 megawatts from 24 megawatts of input power.

But JET isn’t big enough to generate net energy so another project, ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor), is already in the pipeline with the aim of producing 10 times as much power as is put in.

Research from JET will be vital to building ITER and the Oxfordshire reactor has been transformed with new materials to simulate what ITER will eventually look like. Earlier this month, JET announced that it had successfully demonstrated this new ITER-like wall and is on course for a full ‘dress rehearsal’ for ITER.

Now the teams from JET and ITER have agreed to answer your questions on the technical challenges they face, how they plan to overcome them and the difficulties of working on such a long-term but vital project.

Use the comments box below to send in your questions by noon tomorrow (25 October) about either of the projects or about nuclear fusion in general and we’ll print the responses to the best ones next week.

You can read The Engineer’s 2011 feature about JET here, and a 2007 feature about ITER here.

Comments on this article are now closed. Answers to reader questions will be published at the start of November.