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Nuclear fusion: a new record that brings us closer to the dream of clean energy

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  • Written by Esme Stallard
  • Climate and science correspondent, BBC News

Image source, UK Atomic Energy Authority/EUROfusion

Nuclear fusion produced more energy than ever before in an experiment, bringing the world one step closer to the dream of limitless clean energy.

The new world record was set at the UK-based JET Laboratory.

Nuclear fusion is the process that powers stars. Scientists believe it could produce huge amounts of energy without heating our atmosphere.

European scientists working at the site said: “We have achieved things that we have never done before.”

The result comes from the lab's final experiment after more than 40 years of fusion research.

Andrew Bowie, the UK's nuclear energy minister, described it as a “suitable song”.

Nuclear fusion is the process that powers the sun. It works by heating small molecules and forcing them to form heavier molecules, releasing useful energy.

If successfully scaled to commercial levels, they could produce untold amounts of clean energy without carbon emissions. Crucially, unlike wind and solar, you will not be at the mercy of weather conditions.

But as Dr Aneeqa Khan, a research fellow in nuclear fusion at the University of Manchester, explains, it's not easy.

“For atoms to fuse together on Earth, we need temperatures ten times hotter than the sun – about 100 million degrees Celsius, and we need a high enough density of atoms for a long enough period,” she explained.

It is clear that we are still a long way from nuclear fusion power plants, but with each experiment, it brings us one step closer.

Professor Stuart Mangels, Head of the Space, Plasma and Climate Research Community at Imperial College London, said: “The new results from the final run of JET are very exciting.

“This result truly highlights the power of international collaboration, and these results would not have been possible without the work of hundreds of scientists and engineers from across Europe.”

The Joint European Taurus (JET) facility at Culham, Oxford, was established in the late 1970s and was until the end of last year the most advanced experimental nuclear fusion reactor in the world. All experiments were halted in December.

Although based in the United Kingdom it has been mostly funded by the European Union's nuclear research programme, Euratom, and administered by the UK Atomic Energy Agency. Over the course of four decades, it has hosted scientists from the United Kingdom, Europe, Switzerland, and Ukraine.

The reactor was only supposed to operate for a decade or so, but repeated successes have extended its life. The result announced today is three times what was achieved in similar tests in 1997.

“Our successful demonstration… instills greater confidence in the development of fusion energy. In addition to setting a new record, we have achieved things we have never done before and deepened our understanding of fusion physics,” said Professor Ambrogio Fasoli, Program Director at EUROfusion. “.

Image source, UK Atomic Energy Authority/EUROfusion

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Scientists celebrate final experiments at JET

But the UK's future role in European fusion research was not clear. Since Brexit, the UK has been excluded from the Euratom programme, and last year the government made the decision not to rejoin.

Instead, the government said it would allocate £650 million to national research programs instead.

Euratom's successor to JET is a facility called ITER that will be based in France. It was originally scheduled to open in 2016 and cost around €5 billion, but its price has almost quadrupled since then and its start-up has been postponed to 2025. Large-scale trials are now not expected until at least 2035.

Although no reason was given for the UK government's decision not to rejoin the European Atomic Energy Community, delays with ITER are believed to have played a role. At the time, a Department for Energy Security and Net Zero spokesperson said: “Given the delays in engagement and the direction of travel of these EU programmes, the alternative approach gives the UK the best chance of implementing our integration strategy.”

Announcing the registry on Thursday, UKAEA's Ian Chapman said discussions were still ongoing with European partners to see how the UK could participate in ITER in the future.

The government now hopes to build the world's first fusion power plant in Nottinghamshire, with it starting operations in the 2040s. The Tokamak Spherical Energy Production Project (STEP) will be delivered by a new nuclear body, UK Industrial Fusion Solutions.

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