Nuclear Fusion: Europe’s Blind Spot

European Energy Review 16 November 2015 By Dr David Kingham

A hot plasma in the START spherical tokamak built at Culham Laboratory in the 1990s. START set a world record for the ratio of plasma pressure to magnetic pressure which still stands today.

Europe has a great history in fusion research. It was the Englishman Eddington, pairing results from Aston’s mass spectrometer with Einstein’s theory of relativity, who finally showed the world the power source of the Sun – nuclear fusion. The first fusion reactor patent was filed in 1946 by researchers from Imperial College London. Fifty years later, the Joint European Torus (JET) tokamak would hold the world record for fusion power produced. The largest fusion experiment ever built – ITER – is also on European soil. But there are now some new runners in the long race – small, agile ones.

The ‘bigger is better’ logic in fusion research that resulted in the giant ITER project, prone to delays and spiralling costs, has recently been shown to be flawed. This new research indicates a small, low-power solution to the fusion problem and validates the plans of an increasing number of small, privately-funded start-ups. Could there be an alternate route to fusion?

Dr David Kingham is CEO of Tokamak Energy.

The US and the UK are leading this charge of innovation in nuclear fusion. The start-ups are taking a variety of approaches, rapidly testing methods that, when shared, will boost our general understanding of the physics. At Tokamak Energy we are developing and optimising the trusty, well-understood tokamak design. The decades of research into controlling a plasma and heating it to fusion temperatures provides a solid base on which we can build – exploiting emerging technologies to shrink the original design. Our development plan, tackling successive engineering challenges, should see us achieve commercial fusion energy production by 2030. This is a five-stage process involving the creation of a new tokamak device at each stage to achieve a new goal. We are now embarking on stage three – aiming to reach 100 million degrees (fusion temperatures) in a compact tokamak.

This is not to say that public fusion projects are no longer valuable. Machines like the various European tokamaks, particularly ITER, and the Max Plank Institute of Plasma Physics Wendelstein 7-X stellarator will continue to further our understanding of how plasma can be manipulated. Important parallel research into advanced materials and magnet technology will greatly aid the future fusion programme.

As developments continue here in Europe and in the US, the energy industry should begin to take fusion as a serious proposition. Private investment is growing – Tokamak Energy has received $15m to date – a hopeful sign indicative of the growing will to see fusion succeed. There is increasing awareness that new technologies may be applied to this old problem to bring fusion into the realms of commercial viability, as highlighted by recent research from Durham University and the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy.

Currently Europe is at risk of falling behind in developing a fusion-based energy industry, despite the huge success of JET and the massive scale and grand ambition of ITER. The US is leading the way in terms of financial investment in private fusion ventures, with a number of firms receiving around $100m in investment to further numerous different styles of devices and processes. The UK is currently keeping pace, with both ourselves (Tokamak Energy) and First Light Fusion researching in the private sector.

It is worth remembering that fusion is more than simply an interesting physics problem. There is an ever-increasing urgency as climate change begins to bite and as old coal and nuclear fission plants reach end of life. Security of supply is paramount. Fossil fuels will continue to be needed, despite major concerns over carbon emissions, while nuclear fission continues to be politically divisive and the cost of cleaning up of the UK’s Sellafield site reaches eye-watering levels. Renewables are becoming increasingly important, with wind generation especially popular in the UK and a sharp drop in renewable energy production costs over the past five years. But these resources are still highly dependant on environmental factors, making an additional base load power source essential. If not fossil fuels or nuclear power, then what?

The new, varied ways in which fusion is currently being investigated and developed, across different sizes and types of reactor, brings hope for a fusion future. While some hold fast to the view that fusion will forever be beyond the horizon, others are working on the problem or supporting the development of technology that is getting us closer to fusion than ever before. As the continent that has led the world in developing fusion, creating the tokamak design and hosting the world-leading JET tokamak, we should aim to be the continent that continues to drive fusion forward.