Footage shows mesmerising view inside a fusion reactor
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Harnessing the power of the Sun here on Earth promises to solve many of the woes brought on by the burning of fossil fuels. A race is now on to develop the world’s first commercially viable fusion reactor and the UK Government has invested a staggering £222million towards this ambitious initiative. But the UK is not the only country going at it – the European Union and international partners are working on the ITER Tokamak in southern France. Now, a Massachusetts-based startup in the US has just announced a major technological breakthrough that will bring us one step closer to cheap, clean and renewable energy.
Researchers at MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center and the company Commonwealth Fusion Systems are edging closer to firing up a powerful magnet that will play a key role in generating fusion energy.
Fusion reactors use the most powerful magnets on the planet to contain the scorching plasma that is generated inside a fusion reactor.
The reactors work by combining light atoms of hydrogen into heavier atoms of helium – the same process of fusion that occurs at the centre of the Sun.
The plasma is heated to temperatures of millions of degrees, allowing the atoms to join and overcome the forces that would otherwise push them apart.
Earlier this year it was announced the world’s most powerful magnet was being shipped to Cadarache, France, to install at the ITER reactor.
With a magnetic field peaking at 13 Tesla, the magnet will be about 280,000 times more powerful than our planet’s magnetic field.
But according to Massachusetts scientists, their magnet promises to generate a field that could be twice as powerful as ITER’s – and that could be good news for Britain’s energy ambitions.
Bob Mumgard, a plasma physicist at Commonwealth Fusion Systems, told The New York Times: “If you go to a much higher magnetic field, you can go to a much smaller size.”
The company’s proposed reactor could, in theory, be about one-fiftieth the size of the reactor being built in France, while generating as much power.
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The UK is presently home to the world’s biggest fusion reactor, JET.
The experimental device resides at the Culham Science Centre near Oxford.
Once completed ITER will replace JET as the world’s biggest, but the UK is not resting on its laurels.
The Government is funding STEP or the Spherical Tokamak for Energy Production programme.
Although still in the conceptual phase, the spherical tokamak reactor promises to be a smaller and more compact design that will be hooked up to the National Grid.
STEP won’t be used to generate the power we use in our homes, at least not in its initial phases, and will instead serve as more of a research facility.
But the technological breakthroughs made in the US could help the dream materialise by demonstrating the viability of commercial nuclear fusion.
The Massachusetts scientists are wrapping up the work on their magnet and are not yet ready to test their prototype reactor.
But they are hopeful it will be operational by the year 2025.
The Commonwealth magnet will be just one of 20 used inside of reactor the size of a tennis court built at a 47-acre site in Devens, Massachusetts.
Scientists have been toying with the idea of fusion reactors since the Fifties.
The Soviet Union saw some success in the field with the development of the Tokamak reactor.
However, there is a major hurdle scientists need to clear first – fusion reactors presently burn through more energy than they generate.
The Massachusetts team believe they could be the first to generate 10 times more energy than they consume.
To date, the UK has achieved the best input to output ratio with JET, generating 16 megawatts of energy for every 24 megawatts consumed.
The Commonwealth team has also met some backlash from scientists who are not convinced they can reach their goals within their proposed timeframe.
Despite Brexit, the UK announced in January it will continue to work with the EU on the ITER project.
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