Leading: Powering up nuclear fusion at Tokamak Energy

Institute of Mechanical Engineers 01 Jan 2018

Jonathan Carling, the new Chief Executive of Tokamak Energy, on moving from luxury cars and engines to nuclear fusion

Jonathan Carling, chief executive of Tokamak Energy, which received investment to develop its nuclear fusion technology from the IMechE’s Stephenson Fund (Credit: Tokamak Energy)

I was sponsored through university by Jaguar, and I spent a long period of my career with Jaguar Land Rover. I started as an engine designer and developer, and in those early years I also worked on control systems and software. I was chief programme engineer for the original Jaguar XF.

Then I moved on to Aston Martin, initially as manufacturing director, but then as chief operating officer, so I was looking after engineering, manufacturing and purchasing. After a number of years helping to launch a lot of new vehicles, I was asked to join Rolls-Royce in Derby, who make aerospace engines.

There’s a bit of an engine theme running through, and the other common thread in a lot of those jobs is the development of fairly technical products, be it a luxury car, a sports car or a gas turbine. I’m an engineer by training but along the way I’ve learned how to run programmes and grow capability in teams.

If you’re working in an engineering business, whether it’s as chief engineer or CEO, you’re never going to be far away from the engineering that you love. For me, leadership is mostly about people, and enabling them and giving them clarity. You can get enormous satisfaction from bringing talent along and developing people into leaders in their own right.

When I learned about Tokamak Energy and how close they were to accelerating through the challenge of fusion, I could see that this business is now getting to the stage where there’s a lot of build-out required to take it to the next stage.

Fusion can provide an almost limitless and efficient supply of power and, unlike fission, it doesn’t generate huge amounts of high-grade nuclear waste, and isn’t prone to meltdowns and so on. I think at this point it’s an engineering challenge rather than a scientific one.

A tokamak is basically a ball of plasma which is compressed by a magnetic field in order to bring about the conditions required for fusion. To make the reactor sufficiently efficient to allow fusion to take place with a net energy output, a lot of tokamak development is on bigger and bigger machines. If you take the ITER project in the south of France, for example, it has a major radius of 6m, and the total magnet weight of the machine is 6,000 tonnes.

At Tokamak Energy, we’re creating a way to do it quicker by being a private, agile firm. We’ve decided to use spherical tokamaks, which are more efficient because of their shape, but require an extremely strong magnetic field in a very small space.

We’ve discovered that you can do this using high-temperature superconducting magnets, and this means that we’ll be able to develop our fusion power on a much smaller scale than the big government projects. Our ST40 reactor has a major radius of just 0.4m.

We’re working with experts from all round the world on overcoming the engineering challenges that are required to unleash fusion power using spherical tokamaks, which we think are the best route that we have to providing the world with future energy.

In the very short term, we have to do the things that all growing businesses do – fund our capital plan, deliver our milestones, and ensure that we continue on our path to success.

We’re preparing our ST40 reactor for a high-temperature plasma run, where we’ll be aiming to bring it to 15 million degrees Centigrade, and then 100 million within the next one or two years. By 2025 we’ll have positive fusion energy, and we expect to be putting energy into the grid commercially by 2030.