Nuclear fusion – the energy released when atomic nuclei merge – offers the potential for essentially limitless energy, without releasing greenhouse gases or creating dangerous nuclear waste, as nuclear fission does. It happens in stars such as our sun. We may not have to wait as long as you think to achieve it here on Earth.
Last week it emerged that the European roadmap for the generation of electricity from fusion energy is to be delayed by at least a decade, pushing this achievement back into the second half of the century. The latest roadmap, published in 2012 by EUROfusion, outlined how the ITER and DEMO fusion machines would achieve electricity at the latest by 2050, 65 years after they were originally conceived as a joint project between the Reagan-era USA and Gorbachev's Russia. This roadmap has now been dropped, the latest delay since late 2015 saw the announcement of another 6 year delay that led to the official schedule being called "widely discredited".
Looking at this, one would think that the realisation of usable energy from fusion is as far off as ever; after all a two-year period has yielded a cumulative delay of 16 years for the most widely recognised international project. Yet this ignores the gains being made elsewhere. Publicly funded fusion is by no means the sole area of innovation any more. Privately funded companies are developing small, efficient machines that allow for a fast, iterative design process and, ultimately, fusion power sooner.
One just needs to look at the investment going into the sector. Jeff Bezos and Paul Allen have both invested millions in fusion start-ups in North America working on experimental designs. Here in the UK David Harding, alongside others, has done the same for Tokamak Energy, helping us establish ourselves as the UK's leading private fusion venture.
Since launching in 2009, we have built and operated three different prototypes of our compact spherical tokamak reactor design. This has helped us prove that fusion energy can be generated on a small scale, and that reactors don't need to be large to achieve energy 'breakeven' – the moment where one gets more energy from a reactor than was put in to start it. This issue of size was, and still is, a driving principle behind ITER and the reactor that will follow it, DEMO. Indeed, those involved in the project have said that fusion will never be cheap, fast and small. We disagree.
These three reactors have also allowed us to develop the technology crucial to scaling down fusion reactors: high temperature superconductor (HTS) magnets. In a tokamak, the fusion reaction is contained and controlled using magnets. But typical magnets are made of copper or low temperature superconductors are large and cumbersome. HTS magnets can be just as powerful for generating magnetic fields, but much smaller, and allow the whole reactor to be scaled down, helping a design to be built, tested and improved upon faster. We used HTS magnets to demonstrate that a tokamak could operate with continuous plasma for a record duration of 29 hours in 2015.
With our latest machine, the ST40, we're laying the groundwork for what will eventually be our design for a modular, compact fusion power source. In 2018, we will be achieving plasma temperatures of 100 million degrees, which have never before been achieved by a privately funded fusion venture, but are required for fusion energy to be produced on Earth.
The next step after this, with our fourth reactor, will be to fully utilise HTS magnets together with our compact, spherical design to achieve breakeven. Our fifth step will then be a reactor that can deliver electricity into the grid. The timescale we give ourselves for this is by 2030; ambitious, but achievable.
By breaking down this timeline into a series of engineering challenges, investment and industrial support can be secured for each successful stage of the journey. Clear outputs and goals can be set down, ensuring that everyone involved understands and is bought into the end goals of not just that one challenge but also the wider project.
This is where large scale projects such as ITER can run into trouble. The builds are enormously complex, from the concrete megastructure currently being completed to the construction of each component, happening simultaneously across the globe. There are 35 countries involved in the project, all of whom face their own internal and external political, economic and social problems, which many say that the money being spent on ITER could be used to help solve. It really is no wonder that the project is delayed.
This is not to disparage the huge achievements of fusion research at the likes of publicly funded tokamaks such as JET and MAST that have been utterly crucial in developing our understanding of fusion. These contributions have been invaluable in paving the way for the current crop of private sector fusion companies.
But much like how public sector research into global navigation and digital communication led to GPS and the internet, fusion research has now begun to drive growth in the private sector. New reactor designs are being unveiled that utilise our common knowledge, and new materials and subsystems are helping further the capabilities of these designs beyond what was ever possible. From these technological innovations will almost certainly spring new applications in other industries. For example, the remote robotics required for internal reactor maintenance can be applied to a similar activities in the space, military and emergency response arenas.
This latest hold up at ITER is therefore not as much of an issue as first thought. Yes, it will delay scientific research that will add to our knowledge of how fusion works. But we already know enough about this to create and design a reactor – that's only one part of the puzzle. Companies like Tokamak Energy here in the UK, and General Fusion and Tri-Alpha in North America, are now undertaking the engineering and materials challenges that stand in the way of an electricity-generating reactor.
By creating new designs and technologies, we are revolutionising the direction fusion is travelling in and will create an electricity-generating fusion reactor much sooner than the second half of the 21st century predicted by ITER.
Until 2030, watch this space.
Dr David Kingham is chief executive of Tokamak Energy.