The old joke is that nuclear fusion is always 30 years away. Yet the dream of abundant clean energy is no laughing matter as we meet an ITER researcher to catch up on progress at the reactor facility.
The sun has fueled life on Earth for billions of years, creating light and heat through nuclear fusion. Given that incredible power and longevity, it seems there can hardly be a better way to generate energy than by harnessing the same nuclear processes that occur in our own and other stars.
Nuclear fusion reactors aim to replicate this process by fusing hydrogen atoms to create helium, releasing energy in the form of heat. Sustaining this at scale has the potential to produce a safe, clean, almost inexhaustible power source.
The quest began decades ago, but could a long-running joke that nuclear fusion is always 30 years away soon start to look old?
Some hope so, following a major breakthrough during a nuclear-fusion experiment in late 2021. This came at the Joint European Torus (JET) research facility in Oxfordshire, U.K., in a giant, doughnut-shaped machine called a tokamak.
Inside, superheated gases called plasmas are generated in which the fusion reactions take place, containing charged particles that are held in place by powerful magnetic fields. Such plasmas can reach temperatures of 150 million degrees Celsius, an unfathomable 10 times hotter than the sun's core.
In a sustained five-second burst, researchers in the EUROfusion consortium released a record-breaking 59 megajoules (MJ) of fusion energy. This was almost triple the previous 21.7 MJ record set at the same facility in 1997, with the results touted as "the clearest demonstration in a quarter of a century of the potential for fusion energy to deliver safe and sustainable low-carbon energy."
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