Scientists at the Tokamak Energy company have managed to generate twice as much as energy as that of the Sun by nuclear fusion

  • Tokamak Energy is a fusion power research company based in the United Kingdom which has announced a successful trial of its prototype nuclear reactor, the ST40 compact spherical tokamak.
  • The nuclear reactor managed to generate nearly 50 million degrees celsius of heat energy, a figure twice that of the core of the Sun by the process of nuclear fusion of hydrogen atoms to produce helium.
  • With the increasing pressure on natural resources, scientists are hoping that nuclear fusion-generated energy can take over as a cleaner and renewable source of energy to power homes and industries in the future.

Tokamak Energy is a fusion power research company launched in 2009, based in the United Kingdom near Oxford. According to the latest data, this firm located in a small railway town in southern England is set to go down in history for having achieved the unthinkable. In a recent press release, the private organization announced a successful trial of its prototype nuclear reactor. The ST40 compact spherical tokamak prototype managed to generate nearly 50 million degrees celsius of heat energy, a figure twice that of the source of light and heat for our entire solar system, the core of the Sun. The results of this test not only translate into a mind-blowing feat in engineering but also essentially establish the fact that humans are close to unlocking the energy of the Sun.

What are tokamaks?

Tokamaks are essentially reactors that use a powerful magnetic field to confine plasma which is a fluid of nuclei and electrons produced when electrons in atoms disassociate after being heated to fusion temperature. Unlike electrically neutral atoms, a plasma is electrically conductive, and can, therefore, be manipulated by electrical or magnetic fields in the shape of a torus, which is the working principle behind a tokamak. These reactors are currently being developed to produce controlled thermonuclear fusion power.

Tokamaks were initially conceptualized in the 1950s by Soviet physicists Igor Tamm and Andrei Sakharov. The first working tokamak was attributed to the work of Natan Yavlinsky on the T-1 in 1958. Today, tokamaks are widely popular and are being developed by organizations such as Tokamak Energy, as well as the Bill Gates-backed Commonwealth Fusion Systems, and the Korea Institute of Fusion Energy, which recently set a new record by running its reactor at one million degrees for 30 seconds.

The key to unlocking the immense power and possibilities of solar energy

At Tokamak Energy scientists have managed to replicate the process of nuclear fusion occurring in the core of the Sun in their ST40 compact spherical tokamak prototype reactor. The feat was achieved by shooting nearly 140,000 amps of electricity into a cloud of hydrogen gas, and hence in due process trying to force the hydrogen atoms to fuse, thereby creating helium. This process of generating energy through nuclear fusion in the industrial estate could spark a wave of a cheap, clean, and most importantly renewable energy supply source.

When spoken to about the huge technical challenges faced while achieving safe nuclear fusion, Tokamak Energy CEO Chris Kelsall voiced his opinion to correspondents of BBC News in a recent interview. Kelsall said he feels as if the answer to using nuclear fusion to power homes and industries lies with Mother Nature itself and engineers are faced with the task of finding that key and unlocking the safe to that solution. He claims that the key will be found and Tokamak Energy will be at the forefront of cracking this problem.

The rocky road ahead

Using nuclear fusion to generate energy is as lucrative a proposition in thought as it is on paper. Scientists over the world have debated over and over regarding the safety concerns in using this method of energy production in comparison to other established sources such as coal. However to understand such safety issues we must understand the actual working of a tokamak.

The process which occurs inside a ‘tokamak’ is such that the powerful magnetic field used to contain the swirling cloud of hydrogen gas stops the superheated plasma in its core from touching the edge of the vessel. This engineering application ensures that the plasma doesn’t melt anything and everything that it comes into contact with. Moreover, if anything goes wrong inside a fusion reactor, the device just stops hence, there happens to be no risk of this astronomical heat being unleashed.

Also, there needs to be a clear distinction to be made between the process of nuclear fusion and that of nuclear fission which is commonly employed in making destructive weapons such as atom bombs. In tokamaks, magnetic fields are used to trap the electrically-charged plasma particles in an ‘apple-core’ shape, keeping the fusion fuels contained and hot. When the plasma has been heated to 10 times the temperature of the sun to get it going, it is capable of ensuring the fusing of two hydrogen nuclei into a helium nucleus thereby producing energy.

Nuclear fission, on the other hand, is a dangerous kind. This creates energy by splitting one ‘heavy’ atom (typically uranium) into two. This breakdown generates a large amount of radioactive waste in the process, which remains hazardous for years.

When will nuclear fusion become a viable source of energy?

The question of using nuclear fusion successfully to power homes and industries for years to come has never been more applicable than in the current world scenario. The population on Earth is brimming to the edges and researchers need an answer to the depleting natural resources more than ever. If the current pace is allowed to continue in this regard, our future generations might be starved in a world without energy from conventional sources. The need to create alternative avenues for renewable sources of energy has never burned brighter.

As far as nuclear fusion is concerned, Tokamak Energy physicist Dr. Hannah Willett feels that since we get a lot more energy out of this reaction than out of burning fossil fuels, there’s a high risk of things going the wrong way which makes it essential to establish strong controls. If successful, fusion energy would be a major pathway in the green transition by producing low carbon energy alongside natural sources like solar, wind, and tidal energy. Thus essentially, this would mean that we can have a virtually limitless supply of fuel.

Scientists have been trying to make fusion work for more than 50 years and it could still be a while before we can effectively power our homes using it. But that being said, governments are getting more serious about renewable power, with the example of the UK Government investing £10 million into Tokamak Energy last year. Meanwhile, five locations in Scotland and England have been shortlisted as the potential future home of the UK’s prototype fusion energy plant to be known as the Spherical Tokamak for Energy Production (STEP)  due around the end of 2022. Hence, the key to unlimited power might as well be within our reach soon.

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