British officials Wednesday said that European scientists are now a step closer to mastering technology that could enable them to harness nuclear fission, which would provide an unlimited and clean source of energy.
The U.K. Atomic Energy Authority reported that researchers at the Joint European Torus experiment in Oxford, England produced a record amount heat energy in a five-second time period.
The record for sustained fusion energy production was 59 megajoules, more than twice that of 1997.
The agency stated that the result was “the most clear worldwide demonstration of the potential of fusion energy to provide safe and reliable low-carbon energy.”
Tony Donne is the EUROfusion program manager. He stated, “If we can sustain fusion for five second, we can do so for five minutes then five hour as we scale-up our operations in future machine.” “This is an important moment for each of us and the whole fusion industry.”
Ian Chapman CEO of U.K. Atomic Energy Authority said that the results were “a huge step closer to conquering the largest scientific and engineering challenge of them all.”
The facility, also known as JET, is home to the world’s largest and most powerful operational tokamak — a doughnut-shaped device that is considered one promising method for performing controlled fusion.
What other scientists think
Scientists who weren’t involved in the project thought it was a significant achievement, but still far from commercializing fusion power.
Scientists around the globe have been researching nuclear fusion technology for years, and they’ve tried many different approaches. The ultimate goal is to create power similar to the sun’s heat by pressing hydrogen molecules so close together that they form helium. This releases torrents upon torrents of energy.
Carolyn Kuranz, University of Michigan, called the development “very interesting” and a step towards achieving “ignition,” which is when fuel can continue “burning” and produce more energy than it needs to ignite the initial reaction.
She stated that ITER, an even larger experimental nuclear fusion facility located in southern France, was able to produce promising results. It is supported by many European countries as well as the United States, China and Japan. It is expected to be in operation by 2026.
Riccardo Betti from the University of Rochester is a fusion expert. He said that the key to the success was in maintaining the reaction at high performance levels for five second, which is significantly more than what was previously possible in a tokamak.
He said that although the experiment was successful, the power generated was still not enough.
The next step
Ian Fells, an Emeritus Professor of Energy Conversion at Newcastle University, called the new record a landmark in fusion research.
He stated that engineers now have to turn this into carbon-free electricity to mitigate climate change. “Companion could be possible in ten to 20 years.”
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 occurs naturally in the stars — is physically feasible.
She said that scientific breakeven is the next milestone for magnetic fusion. It’s a situation in which the energy from fusion reactions produces more than the energy being used to make the device.
Rival teams are attempting to find other ways of controlling fusion. Recent reports have shown significant progress.
Scientists are hopeful that fusion reactors will one day offer a source for emissions-free, non-radioactive energy.