‘Renegade’ UK physicists say they’re on fast track to nuclear fusion

RTCC By Alex Pashley 9 September 2015

Venture capitalists take on establishment with experimental device, but are optimistic time frames damaging race?

CEO David Kingham with stage two device of Tokamak’s bid to claim fusion energy. (Credit: AlexPashley)

Doughnut-shaped and like a cored apple, could a pint-sized nuclear reactor recreate the sun on Earth?

A start-up in southeast England is betting on it. Tokamak Energy (TE), a privately funded venture 55 miles west of London, says it is pursuing “a faster way to fusion”.

The 16-strong team aims to convert the energy that fuels stars into electricity within ten years.

That would be a colossal feat of physics and engineering, and something that has eluded scientists since the 1950s.

The timeframe to reach what it calls a “Wright Brothers moment” is bullish.

In an industry scarred by rash proclamations of fusion’s arrival, the small spin-off of the nearby world leading Culham Laboratory is going against the grain.

Across the channel, government consensus and budgets back a £13 billion joint research effort in southern France seeking to produce fusion at power-plant scale.

The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, or Iter, aims to start operations in the mid-2020s, and achieve fusion electricity by 2050 at the latest.

Yet so far it resembles vast quantities of concrete poured into the ground, with mounting setbacks pushing back the date the 35-nation endeavour starts mixing the fuel.

Enduring appeal

Fusion being just a generation away is a habitual refrain, observers scoff.

But glacial progress could stymie the race for fusion, as policymakers lose interest and divert research funds, warns TE chief executive, David Kingham.

“We’re now sure it’s possible to achieve fusion energy gain that’s much smaller than people conventionally think,” Kingham tells RTCC from the venture’s aircraft-style hangar H.Q. in an Oxfordshire science park.

Nuclear fusion’s appeal is enduring for a reason. It could produce near-limitless energy from abundant sources. Radioactive waste is minimal, there’s no risk of proliferation, and it produces zero greenhouse gas emissions.

As global temperatures continue their unrelenting climb, it could account for all our energy needs and do away with fossil fuels. Or that’s how the most Panglossian viewing goes.

Tokamak take their name for the Russian acronym meaning”toroidal chamber magentic coils” (Credit: RTCC)

Though there’s a hitch. Fusion is outstandingly complex. After decades of forward steps, the endeavour is more or less stuck in a rut, Kingham says.

The pursuit saw gains from the 1950s onwards, catalysed by the splitting of the atom, breaking records in 1997 when a British cooperative produced fusion energy.

The Joint European Torus (JET) at Culham generated 16 megawatts or 65% of the energy put in. The goal is to get net energy gain.

To achieve fusion, charged particles are heated up to over a million degrees and collided when they would usually stay apart.

The fuel is a mixture of deuterium and tritium, two isotypes of hydrogen. The first is found in seawater, while tritium can be made from lithium inside the reactor.

That creates a fast-moving soup called plasma. This needs to be confined or trapped, so the fuel can be kept hot and long enough for fusion to occur.

That’s the theory, though different methods exist, ranging from using lasers to magnets to confine the plasma.

Jet engines

TE have a five-step plan to get to their goal. Up to £300 million is required, and they have drummed up £10 million in investments, grants and tax breaks, so far to work early versions.

The aim is to roll them off the production line like jet engines. Kingham calculates 400-700 of the machines with 100 megawatt capacity could power the UK’s energy needs.

Their device is a tweaked spherical tokamak, a Russian acronym that stands for “toroidal chamber magnetic coils”. The plasma is heated using microwaves and has to be stabilised by controlling the shape of the magnetic fields.

Machines will use stronger ‘superconductor’ magnets and progress to liquid nitrogen to eventually helium gas to cool it down. But it’s one-twentieth of Iter’s size.

“The balance for us is being realistic about the risks. You can’t pretend there aren’t in both technological development and our ability to raise further investment.

“But the value of the goal is sufficiently high that people can justify taking a bold view,” he adds.

TE’s logic believes large amounts of energy can be saved by cooling the reactors less. That boosts chances of scoring finance, and scaling up the model to get to fusion.

Mind boggling

This disruptive technology and its optimistic timelines has ruffled feathers.

“I guess you could call us renegades, yes,” Kingham submits.

At a meeting sizing up fusion’s potential in July in the House of Lords, the country’s scrutinising upper chamber, Kingham and Steve Cowley, the head of the UK’s Atomic Energy Authority traded barbs.

TE’s plan “boggles the mind,” Cowley said according to a transcript, fearing dents to the UK’s scientific credibility given its forecasts.

“[C]laims to investors of being able to get to fusion by 2018 drove us to say, “We need to have you at arm’s length,” charged Cowley, also director of the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy.

Cowley argued the process for TE to get nuclear licensing would draw the process out at least ten or fifteen years after achieving fusion electricity. He sees 2040 as more realistic.

With the bulk of £171 million being invested through state funding Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, going to Culham, that reputation is key.

“We think we have the basic ingredients that give us a really good shot at trying to make rapid progress,” Kingham responded.

Tokamak Energy’s five-step plan to get to fusion (Credit: RTCC)

The venture says it is backed by new scientific evidence, and was given a fillip in August when the World Economic Forum named it a technological pioneer. Spotify and Dropbox have been past winners.

Howard Wilson, a fusion expert at York University, said he had seen nothing that suggested TE could “get ahead of the pack”.

Iter was the path to follow, with the knowledge arising from its construction giving the best chance to claim fusion. It aims to produce 500 megawatts of power from 50MW of input.

Jonathan Menard, who directs the National Spherical Torus Experiment-Upgrade at Princeton University, a rival project, welcomed TE’s “different research line”, given Iter’s protracted problems.

But he insisted milestones were more relevant than timeframes. “The field has been burned by promises about making timescales, we’re reluctant to do that.”

And he urged patience in the race to achieve “one of the most scientifically challenging things humankind has ever done.” The weakness of solar and wind to shore up baseload power, which fusion could address, meant it deserved interest.

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Growing realisation that the planet needs to halt emissions, with the G7 bloc of advanced economies calling for “decarbonisation of the global economy” by 2100, means interest will remain.

Other fusion initiatives are whirring in the US and Europe.

So tooin China, Menard says, where the world’s clean energy superpower is shovelling money into projects and PhD students without the West’s emphasis on value for money.

In spite of its complex challenges, Kingham is defiant in his outfit’s long-shot bet.

“There’s something fascinating about plasma and how you control these hot wriggly objects that aren’t like solids, liquids, or gases.

“It has to be something about producing the sun on earth.”