a significant step forward in the development of practical nuclear fusion, the energy mechanism that powers the stars.
Nuclear Fusion: By compressing together two kinds of hydrogen, the JET laboratory in the United Kingdom has broken its own world record for the amount of energy it can extract. If nuclear fusion can be successfully generated on Earth, almost endless quantities of low-carbon, low-radiation energy are possible. Over the course of five seconds, the trials produced 59 megajoules of energy (11 megawatts of power). This is more than double what was obtained in 1997 during similar testing.
It’s not a huge amount of energy – simply enough to boil 60 kettles of water. However, it is significant because it verifies design decisions made for a larger fusion reactor currently under construction in France.
“The JET experiments put us a step closer to fusion power,” said Dr Joe Milnes, the head of operations at the reactor lab. “We’ve demonstrated that we can create a mini star inside of our machine and hold it there for five seconds and get high performance, which really takes us into a new realm.”
Fusion is based on the idea that energy can be released by forcing atomic nuclei together rather than separating them, as in the fission reactions that now fuel nuclear power plants. Huge gravitational pressures in the Sun’s core allow this to happen at temperatures of roughly 10 million degrees Celsius. To create fusion at the much lower pressures possible on Earth, temperatures must be significantly higher – exceeding 100 million degrees Celsius. There are no materials that can tolerate direct contact with such high temperatures. To accomplish fusion in a laboratory, scientists created a method in which a super-heated gas, or plasma, is contained inside a doughnut-shaped magnetic field.
The ITER facility in southern France is backed by a group of governments from around the world, including EU member states, the United States, China, and Russia. It is believed to be the final stage in demonstrating that nuclear fusion can be a reliable source of energy in the second part of this century. Future fusion power plants would emit no greenhouse gases and only a small amount of short-lived radioactive waste.
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