A new fusion power station will mimic the Sun to provide limitless energy

'The next technological step after the global ITER fusion experiment'.
Chris Young
An artist's impression of ITER.Filipp Borshch/iStock

A European consortium, EuroFusion, has taken a crucial step on the long road to commercially viable nuclear fusion.

The consortium just announced the start of a five-year "conceptual design" phase for its DEMOnstration power plant (DEMO), a press statement reveals.

This means nuclear fusion scientists are starting design work on a European demonstration power station that they hope will finally enable net nuclear fusion energy — the much-hyped method to end our reliance on fossil fuels by providing practically limitless energy.

DEMO nuclear fusion plant goes into the conceptual design phase

Nuclear fusion is the reaction used by the sun and stars to produce energy. It takes place when two atoms smash against each other to form a heavier nucleus, giving off massive amounts of energy in the process. To date, scientists have largely experimented with circular nuclear fusion reactors, called tokamaks, that use powerful magnets to contain the burning plasma required for the reaction to take place.

EuroFusion's DEMO power plant is planned to be a 300 to 500 megawatt tokamak, which the consortium described in its statement as "a first-of-its-kind facility that represents the next technological step after the global ITER fusion experiment."

The consortium explained in its statement that DEMO's conceptual design phase "charts a route of scientific and engineering research from the basic science at current devices, all the way to designing the demonstration fusion power plant DEMO, capable of net electricity production shortly after the middle of the century." The organization specifically set out the date 2054 as its goal for delivering commercial fusion energy.

Aside from aiming to demonstrate the net production of 300 to 500 hundred megawatts of electricity, DEMO will also demonstrate new innovations such as remote maintenance and tritium breeding. Tritium breeding will allow operators to produce tritium fusion fuel on-site and will be a crucial component for commercial fusion operations in the future.

Taking cues from the world's largest fusion experiment

Before reaching the conceptual design phase, EuroFusion revealed the results of its pre-concept design phase, which was carried out between 2014 and 2020. This covered several areas including power exhaust, tritium breeding, and robust magnet designs.

In EuroFusion's statement, Gianfranco Federici, Head of the Fusion Technology Department at EUROfusion, and Tony Donné, EUROfusion Programme Manager, wrote "the DEMO design and R&D activities in Europe are benefitting largely from the experience gained from the design, licensing, and construction of ITER." However, they warn that work on facilities such as DEMO must start soon after ITER reveals its key findings so as to avoid a "brain drain" away from nuclear fusion to other industries.

ITER is the largest nuclear fusion experiment in the world. It is under construction in southern France and is part of a collaboration between 35 partner countries, including all of the EU, China, India, Japan, Russia, and the U.S. Its main aim is to show that nuclear fusion is safe and commercially viable. If all goes to plan, humanity will have harnessed a new way to reliably harvest vast amounts of energy without damaging the planet.

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