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Technologies to enable fusion (or nuclear fusion) have been in development for several decades, with over 80 years of fundamental scientific research having been dedicated to the theoretical and practical framework required.

 

For many years fusion power has been regarded as a distant, even futuristic, technology. However, recent activity has seen us moving ever closer to achieving fusion as a clean, reliable energy source.

 

So, what is fusion, why do we need it, and how close to a reality is it?

 

Fusion vs fission

 

Nuclear fusion and nuclear fission are vastly different technologies, requiring completely different plant, process control and material inputs, and resulting in completely different waste material outputs.

 

In nuclear fission, the nuclei of heavy elements such as plutonium and uranium are split into smaller nuclei resulting in the release of energy and the creation or radioactive waste which must be safely stored or reprocessed. The safety and environmental hazards associated with nuclear (fission) power stations have been hotly debated for many years, and high profile disasters such as those at Chernobyl and Fukushima have done little for the public’s perception of this technology.

 

By contrast, in nuclear fusion, two protons (typically obtained from deuterium - a stable hydrogen isotope) are fused together to form Helium as the major waste product. This is the same process that powers the sun. Not only are the material inputs and outputs far easier to handle than those associated with nuclear fission, the energy output of nuclear fusion is considerably greater than that achieved during nuclear fission. With this in mind, it is easy to see why successful development of fusion power plants is a goal for governments and other organisations the world over. However, fusion is much harder to accomplish than fission (unless you have a handy sun to hand) meaning that there has been no, commercially generated, power derived from fusion technology to date.

 

Benefits of fusion

 

It is widely accepted that fusion power would have a hugely positive impact on our planet by reducing, or even eliminating, the need for CO2 producing power stations and potentially dangerous - certainly politically divisive - nuclear fission power plants.

 

The benefits of fusion power include:

 

  • lower risk
  • non-toxic waste
  • vast fuel supply (deuterium is distilled from ocean water)
  • cheaper (potentially four times cheaper than nuclear fission)

 

Fusion power has the potential to do wonders for our planet, but achieving fusion is incredibly difficult to achieve due to the repulsion between the positively charged particles, a repulsion that only increases the closer the particles get. To overcome this repulsion, and achieve fusion, requires near unimaginable temperature and pressure, conditions which exist in the Sun and which must be recreated (at least in part) to achieve fusion here on Earth.

 

Scientists have been working to push the boundaries of fusion technology and there have already been some incredible breakthroughs.

 

 

Developments in fusion power

 

It is generally accepted that magnetic plasma (a hot, electrically-charged gas) confinement offers one of the best routes to the achievement of fusion. Although research into other methods of plasma confinement such as inertial confinement is also ongoing.

 

Invented in the 1960s, a toroidal magnetic confinement, more commonly referred to as a tokamak, uses a powerful magnetic field to confine plasma in the shape of a torus. With plasma temperatures of around 100M °C inside a tokamak, it is clear that the development of systems and materials able to operate in such extremes is key to the successful implementation of fusion power.

 

Some of the organisations working hard to make fusion power a reality include:

 

  • Tokamak Energy, a British company based near Oxford who set a new world record for achieving 100 million degrees of plasma temperature with an ST40 spherical tokamak, the highest temperature that any privately funded tokamak has achieved;
  • TAE Technologies, a US company founded in 1998 who have developed a fusion reactor (known as Norman) which uses a cylindrical - rather than toroidal - design to generate plasma;
  • Joint European Torus (JET), the main European torus research programme able to produce plasma hotter than anywhere else in the solar system. Scientists at JET announced in February 2022 that they had achieved the highest sustained fusion energy output ever recorded with JET’s doughnut-shaped tokamak producing 59 megajoules of energy over a fusion pulse lasting five seconds, more than double the 21.7 megajoules in four seconds that broke the record in 1997.

 

The future of fusion

 

With scientists around the world breaking new ground with innovative methods, we are getting closer than ever to achieving sustainable fusion.

 

Most recently, Eurofusion, a dedicated team of fusion researchers, started design work on Europe’s first commercial fusion power station. The station is intended to replicate how fusion is created in the sun, providing clean, environmentally friendly, and almost unlimited energy.

 

Some think we can hope to see a commercial electricity supply by 2054.

 

Fusion and Intellectual Property

 

As with all ground-breaking technologies, the development required to make fusion power a reality will bring with it the creation of valuable Intellectual Property (IP). IP creation and commercialisation will be a key element in making fusion power a commercial reality as the vast majority of fusion projects will require collaboration between the main players, each bringing their own IP to the table. I very much look forward to seeing this technology develop and hope to get the opportunity to work on the patent protection of this fascinating technology.

 

Photo by Jonathan Borba on Unsplash

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