Can the UK break nuclear fusion world records?

The JET experiment in Oxfordshire is set to be the location of a UK bid to set a new world record in nuclear fusion.

Since 1984, the JET (Joint European Torus) experiment has been investigating fusion at the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy. A decade after the centre opened, Professor Steve Cowley has announced that his team will be running JET at maximum power to try and reach the “breakeven” point, at which fusion provides as much energy as it consumes.

"We're hoping to repeat our world record shots and extend them," said Cowley, Director of the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy. "Our world record was from 1997, we think we can improve on it quite considerably and get some really spectacular results. We're winding up to that and by the end of the decade we'll be doing it."

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The main appeal of fusion is the potential for yielding a near limitless supply of clean energy. This is why scientists have struggled to harness the power for the past 50 years. A multi-billion Euro new project, the ITER fusion experiment, is planned for the 2020s and will use the JET design as a prototype. The feasibility of a larger fusion project like this one has been proven by the work performed at JET.

The next five years will be spent training up young scientists and engineers at JET to supply ITER with the best team possible for success.

Cowley also commented that a change of fuel will also be required to help boost the power and break the existing record. Maximum fusion power will be achieved by using a deuterium-tritium fuel mix.

“JET is the only machine in the world that can handle that fuel. When you put tritium in, it reacts like crazy,” said Cowley. The type of fusion used in both JET and ITER is called magnetic confinement fusion (MCF), which heats electrically charged plasma to millions of degrees within a sealed tube called a “tokamak”. At full power this temperature will be more than 10 times that of the centre of the sun, which is an estimated 15 million degrees Celsius.

Despite having critics, fusion appears to hold huge potential for limitless, clean energy.

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