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Poll: Will we see power driven by nuclear fusion by 2040?

19/11/2019
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The UK government recently announced it was investing £200 million to deliver electricity from a fusion reactor by 2040. But is this actually achievable?

Have your say in our poll:

Nuclear fusion has long been considered the holy grail of power generation, offering the potential for an unlimited source of clean, safe energy. Unlike fission (the current method used by nuclear reactors), which splits the atoms of heavy and dangerous radioactive materials, fusion forces together atoms of the lightest and most common element - hydrogen - until they break their atomic bonds and fuse to make helium. The process occurs naturally within the sun, and releases huge quantities of heat and light.

Nuclear fusion reactions happen on an atomic level in the centre of the Sun
(Image via Bloomberg)

Researchers have been working since the 1950s to replicate the process that will allow hydrogen atoms to crash into each other and fuse on earth. But it is an immensely difficult - some have suggested impossible - task. 

Just proving that fusion itself is feasible and possible requires huge and complex developments. The leading concept is the ITER - a massive Tokamak reactor located in the south of France, developed by a collaboration of 35 countries. Conceived in 1985, construction of the project’s reactor building wasn’t started until 2010 and was finally completed just last week. The next stage will be the installation of the metal frame of the roof, followed by assembly of the reactor. 

The reactor will heat hydrogen gas to over 100 million degrees to form “plasma”, which will then be controlled with powerful magnets to accelerate around a doughnut shaped vacuum chamber until fusion occurs. 

At least that’s the theory.

Civil engineering on the Iter nuclear fusion project was completed in November 2019
(Image via Vinci)

Researchers on the Iter project claim that they will achieve first plasma in just five years time. This confidence has led speculation that electricity could be produced from a fusion reactor by as early as 2040. 

The £220 million pledged by the UK Government for the conceptual design of a fusion power station by 2040 is inspired by the potential of the ITER project. Using these funds, researchers based in Culham in Oxfordshire will develop designs for their own Spherical Tokomak for Energy Production (STEP).

Another project is being led by the European Investment Bank, who are investing millions of euros in an Italian programme by Eni that aims to produce fusion energy by 2050.

"Fusion is the true energy source of the future," said Claudio Descalzi, CEO of Eni, "it is completely sustainable, does not release emissions or long-term waste, and is potentially inexhaustible. It is a goal that we are increasingly determined to reach quickly."

The Iter project anticipates first plasma within the next five years
(Image via Iter)

Many other private companies and governments are focusing their own money and efforts into producing working demonstrations models by 2025, leading to fusion power generation by 2040. 

But not everyone is convinced by this timeframe. So far no-one has managed to produce more energy from a fusion experiment than they have put in. Fusion researchers at the Princeton Plasma Physics lab have highlighted the dual challenges of maintaining the reactions over long periods of time and devising a material structure to harness the fusion power for electricity.

And despite researchers' faith in ITER’s potential for 2025, the project has seen so many long delays and overspends that it’s thought that it might not even be up and running until 2050. 

"One of the reasons that Iter is late is that it is really, really hard," said Prof Ian Chapman, chief executive of the UK Atomic Energy Authority.

"What we are doing is fundamentally pushing the barriers of what's known in the technology world. And of course you reach hurdles and you have to overcome them.”

Nuclear reactors create plasma from superheated hydrogen fluids that are propelled at high speeds until the atoms collide and fuse
(Image via Iter)

Prof Chapman goes on to relay his conviction that ITER will be successful, even if it doesn’t manage it within its timeframe.

But will anyone succeed in producing a working fusion reaction in the next few years? And will the UK governments gamble on setting a target of delivering electricity from a fusion reactor by 2040 pay off? 

Have your say

Vote in the poll above to let us know whether you believe that fusion reactions will form a source of energy by 2040, whether you think it is possible but not at that timeframe, or whether you believe that it is fundamentally impossible. Or leave your thoughts in a comment below. 

The results of the poll and the best comments will be published on Monday 25th November, and will be featured in next week’s EngineeringPro newsletter.

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Poll: Will we see power driven by nuclear fusion by 2040? - Time to read 4 min
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