Nuclear fusion reactions have existed for well over 60 years. Yet, despite the demand and capacity for renewable energy increasing, fusion is not available for mass production as are solar, wind, and hydropower. Fusion energy generation is an intense process, requiring planning and the construction of expensive facilities. That said, the industry has many advancements toward developing this potentially lucrative energy source. Here are five places globally that are helping turn nuclear fusion into a viable electricity source.
1 Japan’s superconductor
The National Institute of Fusion Research, located in Toki, Japan, hosts the largest superconducting plasma confinement device in the world: the Large Helical Device. Nuclear fusion combines light in the form of plasma, which is the hot and charged state of matter that generates huge amounts of energy. To facilitate a fusion reaction, areas to confine plasma are necessary. In the 2020 fiscal year, the device powered plasma that reached 100 million degrees. Previously, ions reaching this temperature or higher meant lower electron temperatures. But research at this institute generated high heat for both ions and electrons, essential components of the plasma used for nuclear fusion.
2 MIT’s magnetic field
A tokamak is a machine that confines the plasma used in fusion using magnetic fields. This makes it necessary to heat plasma to temperatures even hotter than the core of the sun in nuclear fusion reactions. There are a lot of hurdles with tokamaks, and scientists today struggle with keeping the device hot enough while also preventing the walls of the machine from completely melting. What has exhibited scientific progress though, is the magnetic field used in fusion. At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), researchers have run fusion experiments since the1970s. In 2021, the Institute’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center (PSFC) assisted Commonwealth Fusion Systems in creating a superconducting magnet that reached a field strength of 20 tesla, making it the most powerful magnetic field of its kind ever created on Earth. The invention has made it possible for engineers and scientists to finally be able to facilitate fusion reactions in labs, which was previously making limited progress.
3 Europe’s commercially viable tokamak
Speaking of tokamaks, the Joint European Torus (JET) is the largest operating one in the world. As with some other projects, plasmas in JET are hotter than anywhere else in the solar system. JET was specifically designed to explore fusion techniques needed for use in power plants, and so it is equipped to actually make progress toward the wide scale use of nuclear fusion in power grids that so many labs are aiming for. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, commercial nuclear fusion will use fuel that is a specific 50-50 mix of two hydrogen isotopes, due to this mixture facilitating fusion at the lowest temperature and having the highest energy yield. JET is the only established machine operating in the world equipped to handle this particular combination, making it the pathway towards larger fusion implementations.
4 California’s powerful laser system
The National Ignition Facility is the world’s most powerful laser fusion facility, located at a lab in Livermore, California. The facility has 192 beams, allowing it to deliver more than 60 times the amount of energy to its target than any previous laser system. In 2013, the laser site resulted in a fusion reaction’s output exceeding the amount of energy taken up by the fuel, but not the energy used to power the laser beams. At the end of 2022, however, the system finally exhibited a net output of energy, what headlines are labeling the latest nuclear fusion “breakthrough”. Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the site of the National Ignition Facility, is now home to two historical nuclear fusion reactions that pushed the industry closer to its goal of commercial energy development.
5 Global agreement on experimentation
The world’s largest nuclear fusion project, incorporating the efforts of seven members of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) project is currently being constructed in France. ITER, not coincidentally, also means “path” or “journey” when translated directly into Latin. The project works in alignment with various smaller labs and machinery around the world, making it the center of convergence for global efforts in nuclear fusion. And it certainly is a journey, with various countries joining, pulling away, and rejoining, construction in France did not begin until 2007, but plans had been approved beginning in 1991. Seven members, the United States, Russia, China, India, Japan, South Korea and the European Union have the goal to achieve efficiency with ITER. The facility has no future plans of generating electricity, that will all happen in demonstration devices across the world. Instead, the project focuses on creating a large thermal output, 500 megawatts to be exact, with less than 50 MW of energy input. More of an experiment and less of a place with commercial intentions, ITER has had several delays. Regardless, concrete planning of continued construction and ambitious goals set ITER on track to enhance the productivity of future reactors.