Fusion forward: Global efforts in achieving nuclear fusion

While the dream of harnessing nuclear fusion as a primary source of clean energy may still be decades away, international collaborations are actively working to accelerate this timeline

By Aditya Sinha

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This undated handout image taken and received by the National Institutes for Quantum Science and Technology (QST) on December 1, 2023, shows the JT-60SA, the world's biggest nuclear fusion reactor constructed to date, before its planned inauguration in the city of Naka, Ibaraki prefecture, Japan, on December 1. Photo: AFP
This undated handout image taken and received by the National Institutes for Quantum Science and Technology (QST) on December 1, 2023, shows the JT-60SA, the world's biggest nuclear fusion reactor constructed to date, before its planned inauguration in the city of Naka, Ibaraki prefecture, Japan, on December 1. Photo: AFP

Published: Sun 10 Dec 2023, 11:48 PM

The world thrives on scientific innovation. Throughout history, innovation has been the driving force behind societal advancement, addressing various challenges and opening new horizons of possibility. Climate change mitigation is no exception to this rule. Technological innovation, especially in the field of energy, is crucial in addressing the environmental challenges we face. One such groundbreaking innovation is Nuclear Fusion.

Nuclear fusion differs significantly from nuclear fission, the process currently used in nuclear power plants. While nuclear fission involves the splitting of heavy atomic nuclei into smaller ones, releasing energy in the process, nuclear fusion is the opposite. It involves the merging of light atomic nuclei, such as hydrogen, to form heavier nuclei, such as helium. This process releases a tremendous amount of energy, much more than fission, making it a potentially superior source of power. However, achieving fusion is notoriously difficult due to the extremely high temperatures and pressures required to initiate and sustain the reaction.

Graphic comparing nuclear fusion vs fission, two physical processes that produce massive amounts of energy and yield millions of times more energy than other energy sources. (AFP)
Graphic comparing nuclear fusion vs fission, two physical processes that produce massive amounts of energy and yield millions of times more energy than other energy sources. (AFP)

In 2022, a landmark achievement was made at the US-based Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Researchers there successfully performed a nuclear fusion process that had eluded others for decades. For the first time, they achieved a fusion of atomic nuclei that produced more energy than what was invested in initiating the process. This breakthrough marked a significant milestone in fusion research. This method is called the inertial confinement method.

Furthermore, the team Lawrence Livermore managed to replicate this groundbreaking experiment on July 30th of this year, confirming the consistency and potential of their approach in the field of nuclear fusion. The scientists used lasers to fuse two light atoms into a single one, releasing 3.15MJ (megajoules) of energy from 2.05MJ of input. This achievement paves the way for future innovations and a possible revolution in how we produce and consume energy, offering a beacon of hope in the fight against climate change.

However, the achievement of net energy gain was a major milestone, but it represents just one step in a series of many yet to be accomplished. The path to achieving repeatable and sustainable fusion reactions involves intricate challenges, such as perfecting the tiny fuel pellets used in the reactions and continuously refining the process.

Parallelly, Japan and the European Union are pursuing a different method of nuclear fusion. The recent operational commencement of the JT-60SA reactor in Japan marks a pivotal moment in nuclear fusion research, showcasing the potential of fusion energy as a sustainable and virtually limitless power source. This tokamak reactor, a joint venture between Japan and the European Union, is the largest of its kind in the world. Situated approximately 85 miles north of Tokyo, the six-storey JT-60SA facility heats plasma to an extraordinary 200 million degrees Celsius, a temperature necessary to achieve fusion reactions. The tokamak design, a toroidal (donut-shaped) chamber with magnetic coils, has been at the forefront of sustainable green energy research for decades, aiming to replicate the process that powers our sun by using gaseous hydrogen fuel to create helium plasma under intense conditions.

However, it's important to note that the primary goal of JT-60SA, along with its European counterpart, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), is to demonstrate the feasibility of scalable fusion energy. ITER, currently under construction in Europe, is anticipated to start operations around 2025, though it has faced several challenges since its inception in 2011.

While the dream of harnessing nuclear fusion as a primary source of clean energy may still be decades away, international collaborations are actively working to accelerate this timeline. A noteworthy example of such cooperation is the recent nuclear fusion pact between the UK and the US. This pact signifies a substantial step forward in fusion research, pooling resources, expertise, and technological advancements from both nations. By sharing scientific findings, technological innovations, and funding, this agreement aims to overcome the complex challenges inherent in making fusion energy a reality. Such international collaborations are crucial in a field where the expertise and resources required to achieve breakthroughs are beyond the scope of any single nation.

Beyond the UK-US partnership, other countries are also engaging in collaborative efforts to advance fusion research. The ITER project in France is a prime example of a global effort, involving the European Union, India, Japan, China, Russia, South Korea, and the United States. This international nuclear fusion research and engineering megaproject is one of the most ambitious energy projects in the world today. It seeks to demonstrate the feasibility of fusion as a large-scale and carbon-neutral source of energy. The scale and diversity of this collaboration underscore the global recognition of fusion energy's potential and the collective commitment to unlocking its possibilities.

In addition, John Kerry, the US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, unveiled a comprehensive nuclear fusion strategy at COP28. This strategy aims to integrate nuclear fusion into the broader framework of climate change mitigation and sustainable energy development. The intricacies of this strategy involve not just the scientific and technical aspects of fusion energy but also address regulatory, financial, and infrastructural challenges. It recognises the need for supportive policies, international regulatory frameworks, and public-private partnerships to facilitate research and development in fusion technology. The strategy also emphasises the importance of environmental and safety standards in the development of fusion reactors, ensuring that this future energy source aligns with global sustainability and climate goals.

Future innovations in nuclear fusion promise a transformative shift towards cleaner energy alternatives. COP28 plays a pivotal role in this evolution, propelling the fusion agenda forward.

(Aditya Sinha is Officer on Special Duty, Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister of India. He tweets @adityasinha004. Views Personal.)


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