Nuclear fusion is an atomic process in which a fusion generator uses high temperatures to overcome repelling forces between atomic nuclei. When the nuclei of lightweight elements such as hydrogen “fuse” together, energy is released in the same process which sustains the core of the sun. The challenge in this process? Fusion can only occur at very high temperatures of around 15 000 000°C; around 10 times hotter than the sun. The solution to this is known as a Tokamak, a generator which uses magnetic fields to confine the super-heated plasma and prevent it from directly touching the walls.
The Culham Centre for Fusion Energy based in Oxfordshire is home to the Mast (Mega Amp Spherical Tokamak) Upgrade. A new design in the form of a spherical tokamak is used in this experiment, which differs from the conventional design used by larger international fusion experiments such as Iter. The approach aims to find a cheaper way to produce fusion energy.
"We've been thinking about a pathway to fusion power plants which allowed for smaller, and therefore cheaper builds," said Professor Ian Chapman, Chief Executive of the United Kingdom Atomic Energy, who hopes that the new tokamak design could "allow quicker penetration into energy markets".
A new extraction system could represent a huge leap in the usability of these machines
Engineers and physicists at Culham have designed a new extraction system called a Super-X diverter, allowing plasma to be siphoned out of the machine at temperatures low enough for materials to withstand. This could represent a huge leap in the usability of these machines as power plants.
"If it works, it really does offer a path to much more compact fusion power plants, in a much more cost-competitive way to delivering fusion here on Earth," said Chapman in a statement.
The experiment could launch the UK to the forefront in the race for cost-competitive energy production from fusion generators, and therefore towards increasing dependence on clean energy sources. "This national fusion experiment takes us another step closer towards our goal of building the UK's first fusion power plant by 2040", stated UK Science Minster Amanda Solloway. The project is backed by a 55-million-pound grant from the government and paints a bright picture for the future of UK energy.
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