Fusion power plants could be on the brink of commercial viability thanks to a new exhaust system developed by scientists from the UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA).
The body praised the success of its “MAST Upgrade” experiment, which is being conducted in Culham, near Oxford, UK.
Fusion energy is based on the same principle with which stars create heat and light. Using a machine called “tokamak”, a nuclear fusion power plant will heat an ionized gas or “plasma”, allowing two types of hydrogen nuclei (deuterium and tritium) to fuse together to release energy that can generate electricity.
But one of the main challenges in getting tokamaks on the grid is removing excess heat produced during fusion reactions.
Without an exhaust system that can handle this intense heat, materials will have to be replaced on a regular basis, significantly affecting the time that a power plant can run.
The new system, known as a “Super-X divertor”, would allow components in future commercial tokamaks to last much longer;
significantly increase the availability of the plant, improve its economic viability and reduce the cost of fusion power Tests at MAST Upgrade, which started in October 2020, have shown that the heat on materials with the Super-X system has increased at least tenfold.
The UKAEA described the technology as a “game-changer” for building fusion power plants that can provide affordable, efficient electricity.
A fusion power plant prototype is currently scheduled for completion in the early 2040s, using a compact machine called the “spherical tokamak”. The Super-X divertor is particularly suited to the spherical tokamak, the body said.
UKAEA’s Chief Scientist at MAST Upgrade, Dr. Andrew Kirk, said: “These are fantastic results. This is the moment that our team at UKAEA has been working towards for nearly a decade.
” We built MAST Upgrade to solve the exhaust problem for compact fusion power plants, and the signs are that we are have passed.
“Super-X reduces the heat of the exhaust system from a blowtorch to more than you’d find in a car engine. This could mean it only needs to be replaced once in the life of a power plant.
” It’s a critical development for the UK’s plan to put a fusion power plant on the grid in early 2040 – and to bring low-carbon energy from fusion to the world.
”Professor Dame Lynn Gladden, Chair of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, said:
“ The UK is a leader in the development of fusion energy for many years, with strong support from EPSRC since the early 2000s.
These initial results from the MAST Upgrade project demonstrate that fusion as an energy source has the potential to increase the world’s energy supply. radically change. “