Featured Image Credit: JET/UKAEA/Alamy
European scientists have described entering a 'new realm' thanks to a breakthrough in the mission to develop practical nuclear fusion.
Nuclear fusion is the energy process that powers stars in space, but replicating it on Earth could pave the way for unlimited supplies of low-carbon and low-radiation energy.
Scientists at the Joint European Torus (JET) laboratory in Oxfordshire have been working to recreate nuclear fusion for nearly 40 years and recently beat their own world record for the amount of energy extracted by squeezing together two forms of hydrogen.
The process works on the principle that energy can be released by squeezing together atomic nuclei. In the core of the sun, gravitational pressures allow this to happen at around 10 million degrees Celsius, however on Earth the temperatures needed to produce fusion would be above 100 million Celsius.
To achieve fusion in a lab, scientists have come up with a solution that involves a super-heated gas, or plasma, being held inside a doughnut-shaped magnetic field, BBC News reports. The setup is currently in the process of being replicated at an even bigger fusion reactor, the ITER facility that's being constructed in France.
Recent experiments produced 59 megajoules of energy over five seconds, enough to boil approximately 60 kettles' worth of water, and while the energy output is not huge it provides confidence in the design choices being used for the new reactor.
Dr Joe Milnes, the head of operations at the reactor lab, explained: 'The JET experiments put us a step closer to fusion power. 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 really takes us into a new realm.'
New fusion energy record results were achieved at the Joint European Torus (JET) by EU-funded EUROfusion Consortium, EU Ambassador @ValedeAlmeidaEU UK Science Minister @GeorgeFreemanMP & EUROfusion CEO Tony Donné announced today in Culham UK.— EU Delegation UK (@EUdelegationUK) February 9, 2022
Speaking to BBC News, JET CEO Prof Ian Chapman said the experiments 'had to work', saying: 'If they hadn't then 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 endeavour.'
Dr Arthur Turrell, author of The Star Builders: Nuclear Fusion And The Race To Power The Planet, described the result of the experiments as 'stunning', noting that the scientists successfully 'managed to demonstrate the greatest amount of energy output from the fusion reactions of any device in history'.
A move from fission reactions, which are used to drive existing nuclear power stations, to fusion would produce no greenhouse gases and only small amounts of radioactive waste. ITER is set to begin plasma experiments in 2025.
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