World-first tests carried out at the Mast (Mega Amp Spherical Tokamak) Upgrade nuclear fusion experiment at Culham in Oxfordshire, could clear one of the largest obstacles for commercial fusion energy, the UK Atomic Authority (UKAEA) explained in a report today, May 26.
The £55m (approx. $77.9m) Mast device began operation in October 2020, after a seven-year building process. Now, Culham scientists revealed that they successfully tested an innovative world-first exhaust system designed to pave the way for compact commercial fusion power plants.
Based on the same process by which stars create heat and light, fusion energy has the potential to provide almost limitless energy in a sustainable manner — that's why countries such as France, the UK, and the US have all planned prototypes for fusion reactors in the coming decades.
Using a machine called a 'tokamak,' a fusion power station will heat 'plasma,' a type of gas, in order to enable hydrogen atoms to fuse together to release energy that will generate electricity.
A 'game-changer' for the future of fusion power
One of the largest hurdles to developing commercially viable tokamaks thus far is the removal of excess heat produced during the fusion reaction process. The intense heat, if not removed efficiently, can damage materials in the reactors, significantly reducing the lifespan of a power plant.
The new device tested at the Mast experiment is an exhaust system, known as a 'Super-X divertor', that would allow future commercial tokamaks to last much longer, greatly increasing the commercial viability of nuclear fusion.
"We built MAST Upgrade to solve the exhaust problem for compact fusion power plants, and the signs are that we’ve succeeded," Lead Scientist at MAST Upgrade, Dr. Andrew Kirk, explained.
"Super-X reduces the heat on the exhaust system from a blowtorch level down to more like you’d find in a car engine. This could mean it would only have to be replaced once during the lifetime of a power plant," Dr. Kirk continued.
The latest tests show the Super-X system enables at least a tenfold reduction in the heat exposure for materials. The researchers stated that the device is a game-changer for the future of fusion power plants, as it will allow them to deliver affordable electricity.
The new development is a crucial stepping stone in the UKAEA's plans to build a prototype fusion power plant, called STEP, by the 2040s, as well as for the world to adopt the power of nuclear fusion, allowing humanity to vastly curb its carbon emissions.