A report commissioned by Research Council UK’s Energy Programme and published in the journal Fusion Engineering and Design has suggested that fusion energy could be both physically and financially viable within the next couple of generations.
The process of fusion involves hydrogen atoms fusing together, releasing energy in the process; fission is when heavier atoms are split. In a fusion reactor, plasma is heated to about 100 million oC and contained in a toroidal (doughtnut-shaped) vessel called a tokamak at the centre of the reactor, where superconducting magnets control its path.
Scientists at Durham University and Culham Centre for Fusion Energy have analysed the effect that incorporating High Temperature Superconductor (HTS) technology into the toroidal field coils of fusion tokomak power plants could have, and found that the Cost of Electricity (CoE) could be significantly reduced. In theory, fusion reactors could run at no greater cost than fission reactors.
This is attention-worthy because fusion is preferable to fission in many ways, most notably for safety reasons: fusion products cannot be used in nuclear weaponry, and no radioactive waste is produced, meaning that even if plasma escaped, disasters like Fukishima and Chernobyl would not be a concern.
Fossil fuels, the only other reasonable large-scale energy option, are a finite resource and have many other associated problems, not least their contribution to global warming.
The leader of the study, Professor Damian Hampshire of the Centre for Material Physics at Durham University, hopes that the paper “kick-starts investment to overcome the remaining technological challenges and speeds up the planning process for the possibility of a fusion-powered world”.
A test reactor called the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) in France will be in operation within the next 10 years. With sufficient investment, the world could have an almost unlimited energy source within the next 2 decades.