- A compact nuclear fusion reactor has reached 100 million degrees Celsius.
- Its manufacturers say that this represents the threshold of energy production for this reactor.
- The design is simplified with a thoughtful design and high temperature magnets.
A private tokamak in the UK is said to have reached ignition temperature for nuclear fusion, meaning the reactor has reached the threshold for commercial power generation.
Tokamak Energy, a fun-to-Google company based in Oxford in the south of England, has been working on tokamak reactors since 2009. Even before that, the group was founded as part of England’s Culham National Center for Fusion Energy , with decades of history under the global nuclear fusion research efforts. (Private companies like Tokamak Energy, which are spun off from research facilities housed at universities or as part of government programs, are surprisingly common. One battery researcher recounts Popular mechanics that the reason is simple: students and public funds should do new research, not plod along the long road of research and development on an emerging commercial product.)
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A tokamak is a donut-shaped – or, in this case, spherical – nuclear fusion reactor in which swirling plasma is brought to millions of degrees of temperature in order to start, Good, merging. The goal is to smash the nuclei together and generate energy. Tokamak Energy’s research focuses on the ST40 reactor, a spherical tokamak that has been tested en route to the so-called “ignition” production report in the field of nuclear fusion. Ignition refers to the point at which the energy produced by a fusion reactor exceeds the amount needed to start it up to millions of degrees. In other words: it’s a very, very high barrier.
Publicly funded reactors like ITER’s huge doughnut-shaped tokamak in France have already set records of 100 million degrees Celsius. But Tokamak Energy’s reactor, which it says has cost a total of $70 million to date, is much smaller than ITER’s, which has cost Billions of dollars. The Tokamak Energy reactor assembly is perhaps as tall as two average-looking human men, as shown in a company video (embedded at the top of this story). In contrast – a phrase that seems underwhelming for the purpose – the ITER tokamak assembly will weigh 23,000 tons.
The size difference is part of what lowers the energy threshold. ITER will need to reach 150 million degrees Celsius, a temperature 50% higher than what Tokamak Energy says it needs. To make a reactor smaller, almost everything in the tokamak is refined to become more streamlined, from the shape itself to the closer placement of the smaller magnets. The tokamak also uses less power because it relies on “hotter” (relatively speaking) superconducting magnets that can be cooled with liquid nitrogen instead of more expensive liquid helium.
Despite their historic temperature hit, Tokamak Energy’s timeline is still comparable to other projects: its reactor will begin producing commercial power in the 2030s. Tokamak Energy’s CEO says the combination of a sleeker spherical design and high-temperature superconducting magnets is “the optimal route to clean, low-cost commercial fusion energy”. New Atlas reports. From there, Tokamak Energy hopes to manufacture modular fusion reactors the same way companies pursue modular fission reactors today.
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