Fact file

The latest nuclear fusion breakthrough explained

‘Landmark results’ in quest for infinite power with zero carbon emissions

Scientists at an Oxfordshire lab say they have made a historic breakthrough in their quest to develop practical nuclear fusion – the energy process that powers the stars.

Over the course of five seconds, the JET laboratory near Abingdon recreated the way the Sun works to make 59 megajoules of energy – more than double the amount achieved in similar tests back in 1997.

“This is not a massive energy output,” noted the BBC – “only enough to boil about 60 kettles’ worth of water”. However, scientists described the results as a significant moment in the quest for clean and reliable power.

The “landmark results” have “taken us a huge step closer to conquering one of the biggest scientific and engineering challenges of them all”, said Professor Ian Chapman, chief executive of the UK Atomic Energy Agency, which co-funds and operates JET.

What is nuclear fusion?

Nuclear fusion is “a way of generating power that, in the broadest brush terms, could potentially provide us with an infinite amount of electricity with zero carbon emissions”, Alok Jha, science and technology correspondent at The Economist, told The Week Unwrapped podcast.

It works by fusing two or more atoms into one larger one, a process that unleashes a colossal amount of energy as heat.

Unlike nuclear fission, which currently powers nuclear reactors by splitting radioactive elements to release energy, fusion does the opposite, explained Sky News.

Fusion “forces two forms of hydrogen to fuse together releasing around four times more energy by weight of fuel than a nuclear fission reactor and four million times more than burning fossil fuels”, said the broadcaster.

Why is it important?

Nuclear fusion would offer a way of generating power that could potentially provide an infinite amount of electricity with zero carbon emissions. “There’s no silver bullet to the climate crisis,” said CNN, “but nuclear fusion may be the closest thing to it.”

It would also be a much safer process. Nuclear fission currently creates waste that can remain radioactive – and therefore potentially dangerous – for tens of thousands of years. After Japan’s Fukushima disaster in 2011, radioactive material leaked into the atmosphere and the Pacific Ocean.

In contrast, operating the power plants of the future with fusion would produce only very small amounts of short-lived radioactive waste.

When could it be used?

There’s “huge uncertainty” about this, wrote the BBC’s environment analyst Roger Harrabin, but it won’t be any time soon.

One estimate suggests “maybe 20 years”, he said, but even then fusion would “need to scale up, which would mean a delay of perhaps another few decades”.

Therefore, it probably won’t be until the middle of the century that this form of power becomes at all commonplace. The European Fusion Development Agreement has established a goal of bringing fusion electricity to the grid by 2050, said World Nuclear News.

The design for fusion was first proposed by Russian scientists in 1950, and the process has become so protracted that a joke in nuclear fusion circles states that a working reactor has been 20 years away ever since then. “Today’s advance might mean fusion scientists have the last laugh,” said Sky News.

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