UK takes giant leap forward in fusion power thanks to Tokamak reactor

Posted on 2 May 2017 by Tim Brown
The Tokamak ST40 fusion reactor, which has been switched on and taken the UK one step further towards generating electricity from the power of the stars - image courtesy of Tokamak Energy.

The UK's newest fusion reactor, ST40, was switched on last week, and has already managed to achieve 'first plasma'.

The company behind the reactor, Tokamak Energy, intends to produce a plasma temperature of 100 million degrees celsius (180 million degrees Fahrenheit) by 2018. That’s seven times hotter than the centre of the Sun and is the ‘fusion’ threshold, at which hydrogen atoms can begin to fuse into helium, unleashing limitless, clean energy in the process.

Fusion involves placing hydrogen atoms under high heat and pressure until they fuse into helium atoms and is the same process that powers our sun.

“Today is an important day for fusion energy development in the UK, and the world,” said David Kingham, CEO of Tokamak Energy, the company behind ST40.

“We are unveiling the first world-class controlled fusion device to have been designed, built and operated by a private venture. The ST40 is a machine that will show fusion temperatures – 100 million degrees – are possible in compact, cost-effective reactors. This will allow fusion power to be achieved in years, not decades.”

Tokamak Energy is an Oxfordshire-based company that grew out of the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy and was established in 2009 to design and develop small fusion reactors. Tokamak Energy’s aim is to put fusion power into the grid by 2030.

What’s next for Tokamak’s fusion reactor

With the ST40 up and running, the next steps are to complete the commissioning and installation of the full set of magnetic coils which are crucial to reaching the temperatures required for fusion. This will allow the ST40 to a produce plasma temperature of 15 million degrees – as hot as the centre of the Sun – in Autumn 2017.

Following the 15 million degree milestone, the next goal is for the ST40 to produce plasma temperatures of 100 million degrees in 2018. This will be a record-breaking milestone, as the plasma will reach a temperature never before achieved in a privately owned and funded fusion reactor. 100 million degrees is an important threshold, as it is only at or above this temperature that charged particles which naturally repel can be forced together to induce the controlled fusion reaction. It will also prove the vital point that commercially viable fusion power can be produced in compact spherical tokamaks.

“We will still need significant investment, many academic and industrial collaborations, dedicated and creative engineers and scientists, and an excellent supply chain,” said Kingham. “Our approach continues to be to break the journey down into a series of engineering challenges, raising additional investment on reaching each new milestone. We are already half-way to the goal of fusion energy; with hard work we will deliver fusion power at commercial scale by 2030.”