In their quest to develop practical nuclear fusion, European scientists recently smashed their world record for the amount of energy they can extract by squeezing together two forms of hydrogen. If nuclear fusion, the energy process that powers the stars, can be successfully recreated on Earth, it holds the potential of virtually unlimited supplies of low-carbon, low-radiation energy.
The nuclear fusion process involves the heating of hydrogen atoms, a fusion reaction, the release of helium, neutron, and energy, and the heating of water through this neutron energy. Ultimately, this process would drive steam turbines to generate electricity.
Fusion works on the principle that energy can be released by forcing together atomic nuclei rather than by splitting them, as is the case of the fission reactions that drive existing nuclear power stations. This occurs naturally in the core of the Sun with the help of substantial gravitational pressures and extraordinarily high temperatures. Because of the much lower pressures on Earth, they needed to produce fusion reactions need to be about ten times those at the center of the Sun.
Because no existing materials can withstand that heat level, scientists have devised a solution in which heated gas is held inside a doughnut-shaped magnetic field. The Joint European Torus (JET) has been working on pioneering this fusion approach for nearly 40 years.
The UK-based JET laboratory’s experiments produced 59 megajoules of energy over five seconds, more than double what was achieved in similar tests back in 1997. While this energy output is only enough to boil about 60 kettles’ worth of water, it validates design choices for an even bigger fusion reactor now being constructed in France.
“The JET experiments put us a step closer to fusion power,” said Dr. Joe Milnes, the head of operations at the lab, in an interview with BBC. "We've demonstrated that we can create a mini star inside of our machine and hold it there for five seconds and get high performance, which takes us into a new realm."
In southern France, the ITER facility is supported by many world governments, including the US, China, and Russia. It is hoped to be the last step in proving nuclear fusion as a viable energy provider for the future, one that can fuel power plants and produce no greenhouse gases.
"These experiments we've just completed had to work," said JET CEO Prof Ian Chapman. "If they hadn't, we'd have real concerns about whether ITER could meet its goals.
"This was high stakes and the fact that we achieved what we did was down to the brilliance of people and their trust in the scientific endeavor," he told BBC News.
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