Researchers Just Overcame a Key Barrier to Fusion Power
One promising approach to nuclear power is a type of reactor called a tokamak, which uses powerful magnetic fields to trap super-heated plasma in a bagel-shaped torus.
An obstacle to making tokamak reactors viable is that the plasma gets extremely hot, reaching temperatures of up to 100 million degrees Celsius — as hot as the Sun. But according to Reuters, U.K. researchers say they’ve finally found a way to vent that heat safely.
The new exhaust system, which was developed by scientists at the U.K. Atomic Energy Authority, directs the plasma to travel in a longer path through the tokamak in order to cool down.
Then the cooler plasma will come into contact with a “sacrificial wall” — it wasn’t clear from the Reuters report what it’s made out of — designed to be replaced every few years as the plasma breaks it down.
The researchers hope the new exhaust system will be used at an experimental reactor in France called ITER. The international team working on ITER, which is scheduled to go live in 2025, hope that it will be the first reactor in history to produce net energy — which would be a meaningful step toward practical fusion power plants.
“We’re here to commercialize fusion power,” Atomic Energy Authority executive director Ian Chapman told Reuters. “I mean, fusion offers this enormous potential. There’s no long-lived radioactive waste, there’s effectively inexhaustible fuel, there’s no carbon emission. It sounds perfect, but it’s really hard to do.”