Nuclear fusion reactor smashes a new energy record after 24 years

Watch the amazing video of the record-breaking test.
Ameya Paleja

Scientists at the Joint European Torus (JET) facility at Oxford in the U.K. broke their own record of energy released from a nuclear fusion reaction that was set over 24 years ago, marking a major milestone in our endeavor to produce energy in a safe and sustainable way.

The U.K. Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) which owns the JET facility tweeted a short clip of this achievement.

Nuclear fusion is the new frontier of energy generation that holds the potential of delivering energy at a large scale without emitting as much carbon. According to EUROfusion's statement, when compared pound to pound, nuclear fusion can deliver four million times as much energy as coal, oil or gas does.

Researchers across the globe have been attempting to replicate the process the Sun has been carrying out for billions of years at a much smaller scale in a reactor. They have achieved some amount of success using the Tokamak reactor, which is also installed at the JET facility.

In such a reactor, hydrogen fuels are heated to temperatures up to 150 million degrees Celsius, 10 times hotter than the center of the Sun to form plasma, a superheated gas. Magnetic fields are used to keep the plasma from touching the surfaces of the reactor and at these high temperatures, hydrogen atoms fuse to form helium while giving off vast amounts of energy that can be captured and converted into electricity.

During the recent experiments, the scientists at the facility were able to generate 59 megajoules of energy sustained over a five-second period. This is far higher than the 22 megajoules of energy the facility had managed to produce in its 1997 experiment. During the recent experiment, the average power produced was 11 megawatts per second, the statement said.

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In a statement Tony Donné, EUROfusion Program Manager, said "The record, and more importantly the things we’ve learned about fusion under these conditions and how it fully confirms our predictions, show that we are on the right path to a future world of fusion energy. If we can maintain fusion for five seconds, we can do it for five minutes and then five hours as we scale up our operations in future machines."

While this is an achievement in itself, the experiment does not solve the biggest hurdle in nuclear fusion energy, of generating more energy than is put in. The ratio called Q would have a breakeven point of 1. However, according to a Nature report, no fusion experiment conducted so far has achieved this. Last year, an experiment conducted using laser beams to heat the fuel reached a Q value of 0.7. Scientists are hopeful that they will be able to overcome this hurdle when they replicate this experiment at a larger scale with International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER).

Founded in 2007, the ITER project will scale up the experiments conducted at the JET facility using the same fuel mix and use the learnings from the experiments to generate a Q value of 10, Nature reported. However, ITER still needs to figure out how it will handle the heat generated during this process and it has over three years to figure this out as it is expected to be operational only by 2025.

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