For nearly a century, the scientific community has pursued the goal of nuclear fusion, hoping to invent technology to create plasma, literal star power on Earth at temperatures many times hotter than our sun. The challenges are enormous, but so are the potential rewards. If achieved, fusion can create near-limitless energy with no carbon dioxide emissions. While the quest for fusion is notoriously tricky, great strides have been made in advancing the technology over the past several months.
What is nuclear fusion? Put simply; fusion is the process of forcibly adding particles to the nuclei of extremely light elements. This process contrasts with the fission nuclear energy used today, which forcibly splits the nuclei of heavy elements to create heat energy. While the difference seems nominal, achieving fusion instead of fission has proved astonishingly difficult to achieve.
Earlier this month, South Korea’s Superconducting Tokamak Advanced Research Center (KSTAR) reached a significant milestone with its experimental fusion project, holding a temperature above 100 million degrees Celsius for 30 seconds. That’s seven times hotter than our sun! Unfortunately, reaching those temperatures creates another challenge: containing that immense heat.
Today’s experimental fusion reactors use a tokamak device to contain the plasma. A tokamak is a donut-shaped machine that confines a plasma using magnetic fields. Typically, these facilities can only be used a few times before the extreme heat irreparably damages them. The KSTAR experiment is significant because the facility is undamaged, and researchers are already planning a new experiment that will hopefully run longer than 30 seconds.
The Korean experiment isn’t the only fusion success story. In February, we wrote about the U.K.’s Joint European Torus (JET) experiment that created plasma for five seconds. The JET experiment is paving the way for other similar experiments, notably the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), which 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 is on track to begin creating plasma in a few years. The data from JET will be vital to the success of ITER.
While the advancement of nuclear fusion technology is exciting news, substantial challenges remain. A major hurdle, besides the containment issue, is the energy deficit. No nuclear fusion experiment has reached the temperatures needed to generate extra energy. The high energy cost of creating the plasma creates a huge deficit that must be overcome before generating net energy.
“We’ve been making fusion reactions for more than a decade now. The issue is producing more energy output from fusion reactions than is required to start. These fusion reactions are what’s called this energy break-even demonstration. We believe we’re right around the corner from doing so,” says Ben Levitt, director of research and development at Zap Energy.
While challenges remain, the steady pace of nuclear fusion successes are exciting news. We can’t wait to see what’s in the stars for this fantastic technology.