A recent breakthrough by scientists at the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy has brought nuclear fusion one step closer to reality. The new “Super-X divertor” is capable of greatly reducing the temperature of Tokamaks, leading to numerous advantages in future.
Tokamaks are large, room-sized devices that can generate immensely powerful magnetic fields in order to keep plasma in its desired shape. If these devices operate for too long, the materials may start to melt due to the heat, hence why proper ventilation is so important.
For fusion to take place, the plasma must exceed temperatures over 100 million degrees celsius, which is even hotter than parts of the sun. Naturally Tokamak components don’t have very long lifespans. But with more efficient cooling commercial reactors would become considerably cheaper to maintain, as parts would have to be replaced much less often.
Fusion energy itself is still a long while away. So far no reactor has been able to produce more energy than it uses. If achievable, fusion presents many advantages over classical fission reactors, such as producing much less nuclear waste. They are generally believed to be much safer, and may be one of the main sources of energy in the future.
In theory, fusion occurs when two atomic nuclei merge to form one heavier nucleus while releasing relatively large amounts of energy. This process occurs naturally in stars, using hydrogen as the fuel, combined with the immense pressure of gravity to form plasma. This means that for fusion to take place on Earth, we need to simulate parameters similar to that of the sun, which as you can imagine is very energy demanding.
Currently there are plans to build prototype fusion reactors in the UK at some point in the 2040s, by which time our understanding of the process is expected to be much more advanced. Only time will tell if fusion as a source of energy will be powering our cities one day.