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A History of Nuclear Fusion Energy

Interior of the Joint European Torus (JET) tokamak experimental fusion machine with a photo of the plasma overlaid. (Image credit: United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority, courtesy of EUROfusion)

Ever since Arthur Eddington first published his theory that stars create their energy from the fusion of hydrogen and helium, scientists worldwide have been working towards a better understanding of fusion and how it could be used to supply power. In the 1950s governments started declassifying documents on nuclear fission and started looking into recreating nuclear fusion on Earth. Researchers thought it could be used as a clean energy source. In 1950 soviet scientists Andrei Sakharov and Igor Tamm designed a type of magnetic confinement fusion device, called the Tokamak. By the 1970s it was clear that collaboration would be key to advancing closer to attaining fusion energy as this was one of the greatest challenges scientists had faced. Then in 1973, European countries joined forces and started designing and building the Joint European Torus or JET. JET was finished on time and on budget ten years later in 1983, allowing the first plasmas to be achieved. In November 1985 at the Geneva Superpower Summit ITER was set in motion as the world's largest fusion research and engineering project. This was only the beginning of ITER as it was only recently officially established in October 2007. In 1997 JET was used for the first experiments using Tridium, using a 50-50 mix of Tridium and deuterium. In the same year using this new fuel mix JET set a new record outputting 16 megawatts from an input of 24 megawatts of heating. This experiment also set the record for “Q” at 0.67. Q is the ratio between the energy output and the energy input through plasma heating. A Q of 1 would be breakeven, true fusion energy would have a Q of greater than 1, and ITER’s goal is to achieve a Q of 10. In 2005 ITER members agreed to build their facility in Cadarache, in France. Cardarache is the largest technological research and development center for energy in Europe. The Carderache Center includes ITER and CEA research activities. (French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission). ITER is making a Takamak and is currently at about 85% complete with projections to create its first plasma sometime next year. In 1997 a new form of fusion energy experiments began with the construction of NIF or the National Ignition Facility in California. NIF takes another approach to fusion energy by using lasers. Most other facilities such as JET use a magnetic confinement fusion, but NIF creates fusion by firing 192 extremely precise and focused lasers at a target about the size of the eraser on your pencil. The extreme heat and pressure cause the hydrogen in the target to fuse and release energy. NIF was completed in 2009 and has been experimenting with Tridium sense. Then in 2021, JET set a new record for most energy created making 59 megajoules from only 170 micrograms of fuel. The next year in 2022 NIF set a new record for “Q” at 1.54 with a 3.15 megajoule output from a 2.05 megajoule laser heating. More recently JET beat its own record of energy output earlier this month with 200 micrograms of fuel making 69 megajoules. For reference 69 megajoules is enough to power the average house for a few minutes. The power isn't much but it is still a big step towards commercializing fusion energy. This records setting run was also JET’s last as it is being decommissioned and its task is being handed over to ITER and their much newer machine. These advancements may seem like a lot but there is still a long way to go with experts predicting that large-scale energy from nuclear fusion won't happen until around 2050. In addition, even though we have surpassed the break-even point for “Q” experts say that a Q of about five is necessary for the fusion reaction to be self-sustaining or happen without having to add external heat.


 

History of fusion. EUROfusion. (2023, June 30). https://euro-fusion.org/fusion/history-of-fusion/


Rao, R. (2024, February 9). Nuclear fusion lab sets record for most energy created with single reaction. Space.com. https://www.space.com/nuclear-fusion-lab-record-energy-single-reaction



What Is the National Ignition Facility?. What is the National Ignition Facility? (n.d.). https://lasers.llnl.gov/about/what-is-nif


The year that was: Headlines and a shared ideal. ITER. (2022, December 19). https://www.iter.org/newsline/-/3827


 

Owen Dustin is a sophomore at Poudre High School. This is his first year writing for the Poudre Press. At school, he is on the Alpine Robotics team and the unified flag football team. Outside of school he likes to mountain bike, play video games, and hang out with friends.

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