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The UK Is Racing to Build the World’s First Commercial Fusion Power Plant

Achieve nuclear fusion

The UK Is Racing to Build the World’s First Commercial Fusion Power Plant
Achieve nuclear fusion
We’re struggling to figure out what the future of sustainable energy looks like on our planet, and there are a lot of different directions we could go. The UK, however, made a bold move when they recently announced a huge investment in a prototype fusion power facility that could be functioning as a commercial power plant by 2040! That’s pretty mind-blowing for many reasons, one of which is that fusion power isn’t really a reality yet.

See, nuclear fusion is what powers stars, including our Sun. And the ‘fusion’ part refers to the fact that isotopes of extremely light elements like hydrogen are fusing together at the extremely high temperatures and pressures that exist at the center of stars. Under these conditions, gases like helium and hydrogen actually exist as plasmas. For a fusion interaction to occur, the nuclei of the atoms that are being joined have to undergo a change in the way they’re put together. We take those two isotopes, usually heavy hydrogen isotopes like deuterium and tritium, and expose them to really extreme conditions.

What comes out on the other side of that really hot, dense party is a rearrangement of their component parts: helium atoms, neutrons and a HUGE amount of energy. So how the heck do we recreate what happens inside of on Earth? Well, you have to try and replicate those extreme conditions so that you can get the atoms to behave the way you want them to. That involves creating plasmas or taking gases to very high temperatures and densities which a number of innovative facilities do in a variety of ways.

One of these facilities is called Iter, which means ‘the way’ in Latin and is a major international fusion collaboration that’s been in progress since 1985. China, the EU, India, Japan, South Korea, Russia, and the U.S. are all contributing members who have agreed to fund ITER’s goal of producing fusion energy that could power our world Because if we could make it work the way we hope to? Fusion energy could provide us with clean, basically limitless energy. And the U.K. government just dedicated 220 million pounds for a facility of their own.

So the race is very much on, as it has been for several decades. Because as amazing as the idea of fusion energy is, we still haven’t reached a point where the amount of energy produced by the fusion reaction is greater than the amount of energy it takes to create the interaction in the first place. Until we’re able to make that happen, it doesn’t really make sense to think about fusion energy as a commercial option. This U.K. prototype fusion facility is called the Spherical Tokamak for Energy Production, or STEP. And the first step toward making STEP a reality is to come up with the design for the plant. Then—if the project gets approved to move forward—actually building the spec power plant would cost somewhere on the order of billions of pounds.

STEP is hoping to make breakthroughs in the field by pursuing a slightly different approach from Iter— specifically, a different kind of tokamak. A tokamak is a common design for the central machine of a potential magnetic fusion reactor, where the plasma is created and where the fusion takes place. The newly proposed U.K. facility will use a smaller, more spherical tokamak which they hope will be cheaper.

Iter’s long-standing plans incorporate a larger donut-shaped tokamak, a design which has been more extensively studied. So on the one hand, STEP’s innovation presents a risk, but it also presents an opportunity to potentially improve energy yield and on a smaller initial budget. It’s definitely interesting that the UK is announcing their plans for this extremely ambitious project just as it faces uncertainty around the Brexit decision… and therefore its involvement with Iter. Because remember, the EU is one of Iter’s contributing members, so if the U.K. leaves the EU... then they’re on their own for fusion innovation.

But they’re not alone in branching out— each of the seven Iter partners is exploring commercial reactors on their own as well. With all of these efforts, plus the ongoing international collaboration of Iter, the hope is to make fusion energy a reality sooner, rather than later. 2040 seems like an ambitious goal, but I think it’s going to take that kind of audacity to get us where we need to go... and in the process, make the future of humanity on this planet more sustainable and honestly, possible.

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