For five seconds back in December, scientists in the U.K. created a literal star on Earth. While five seconds seems like a woefully short amount of time, the experiment was groundbreaking for the field of nuclear fusion and the future of clean energy.
Scientists have been on a quest to create nuclear fusion, which is the process that powers our stars, for nearly a century. Conventional nuclear reactors produce energy using fission, or splitting atoms. High-energy neutrons split heavy atoms of uranium, yielding large amounts of power, as well as radiation and waste.
On the other hand, fusion is created by heating atoms of hydrogen isotopes deuterium and tritium to temperatures ten times hotter than the sun to create plasma. Superconductor electromagnets hold the plasma in place as it spins around, fuses, and releases tremendous energy as heat. The Joint European Torus (JET) project in the U.K. created 11 megawatts of power in 5 seconds. That’s enough energy to boil 60 electric kettles of water. While it may not sound like much, the experiment more than doubled JET’s previous record for a fusion reaction, which was set back in 1997.
“The JET experiments put us a step closer to fusion power,” said Dr. Joe Milnes, the head of operations at the reactor lab. “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.”
Nuclear fusion has enormous potential as a future clean energy source. It’s inherently safe; it produces virtually no waste or emissions and uses only small amounts of abundant, naturally-sourced fuel. Some of the fuel components can even be harvested from seawater.
While creating a five-second plasma reaction is no small feat, much longer reactions will be needed for nuclear fusion to become a viable energy source. Sadly, JET has been subject to such extreme heat and pressure that this experiment was likely its last.
However, JET’s advances in nuclear fusion will be invaluable for other projects. For instance, a larger and more advanced version of JET, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), is currently being built in southern France. The megaproject enjoys international support from China, the European Union, India, Japan, Korea, Russia, and the United States. ITER is about 80% complete and may begin creating plasma as soon as 2025. The data from JET will be vital to the success of ITER.
Energy Fairness has consistently argued that new nuclear technologies will be essential for cutting carbon emissions while ensuring reliability. We applaud the breakthrough success of the JET experiment and are excited for other fusion projects on the horizon. The stars are the limit for this fantastic clean energy resource.