Nuclear Fusion Reaches Record-Breaking Energy Output

The world’s most powerful nuclear fusion reactor, the Joint European Torus (JET) in Oxfordshire, UK, has broken its own record for energy output by sustaining a ball of super-hot plasma produced by nuclear fusion for 5 seconds and producing 59 megajoules of heat energy.

This is more than double the previous record of 22 megajoules set by JET in 1997. The scientists at the European fusion research center hope to develop JET into the world’s first electricity-producing fusion power station by 2018.

Nuclear Fusion Gets Closer to Reality

Nuclear fusion is closer to becoming a reality. In December, scientists at JET (Joint European Torus) in Oxfordshire achieved a record 59 megajoules of energy from an experiment designed to replicate thermonuclear reactions that power stars.

The breakthrough means a commercial reactor could be up and running by 2050. Unlike nuclear fission — currently used in conventional reactors like those at Fukushima — nuclear fusion uses two isotopes of hydrogen (deuterium and tritium) to create helium as its main source of heat energy.

The hot plasma is contained within magnetic fields, so it’s contained during its reaction—helping avoid potential meltdown scenarios like those seen at Chornobyl and Fukushima.

The future of nuclear power

Fusion energy sounds futuristic, but it’s actually closer to reality than most people realize. The world’s largest nuclear fusion experiment, named Joint European Torus (JET), in Oxfordshire, UK recently achieved a new record for plasma confinement time of 5 seconds — beating its own record from 1997 by nearly double.

It also produced 59 megajoules of heat energy from that small volume of plasma, which is about twice as much as any other fusion reactor has created. For context, one megajoule is roughly equivalent to raising a 150lb weight 100ft into the air using just your hands and arms. In other words: pretty darned powerful stuff!

Nuclear Power from Thorium

One way to solve both of these problems is to use thorium. It’s a naturally occurring radioactive element that can be as abundant in nature as tin or lead, and it’s far less toxic than uranium. (What’s more, there are even signs that it might be able to breed into fissile plutonium).

We could one day replace our current nuclear plants with ones that run on thorium, thus providing much safer energy with few greenhouse gas emissions. Let’s celebrate today’s achievement at JET—and let’s work together towards building a new generation of nuclear power plants. They’re nothing short of vital if we want to address global warming and our dwindling energy resources.

Where does this leave fossil fuels?

The record 59 megajoules of energy put out by JET is only a tiny fraction of what we produce from fossil fuels. However, it shows nuclear fusion could potentially be a carbon-neutral alternative to fossil fuels because it uses deuterium and tritium (both heavy isotopes of hydrogen) rather than burning carbon-based materials.

The downside: a single experiment takes up to five years and costs hundreds of millions of dollars to carry out, so it will be decades before commercial plants are in place.

What’s next for nuclear research?

More work needs to be done before nuclear fusion becomes a viable source of energy, but it’s promising that scientists have reached new levels of output after 20 years. The success at JET will be crucial for its successor, ITER, whose construction is scheduled to begin in 2019.

With a projected opening date set for 2027 and an estimated cost of $20 billion, ITER (which stands for International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor) will be nearly three times larger than JET and represent one of humanity’s most ambitious science projects. If successful, it could usher in a new era where clean nuclear power is abundant around the world.

10 Ways to Help Fight Climate Change

A carbon tax. State and federal renewable portfolio standards require electric utilities to provide a certain percentage of their power from wind, solar, biomass, or other renewable sources. A cap-and-trade system that puts a ceiling on carbon emissions. Carbon capture and storage technologies, allow companies to continue emitting greenhouse gases while removing those emissions from smokestacks or other industrial sites.

Efficiency requirements for cars, buildings, and appliances—so they use less energy when they’re in use. Technology improvements lower how much energy it takes to make a product, like lighting or glass production.

Some combination of 1 through 6, is designed to change what we buy (efficient cars) and how we buy it (carbon taxes), so we’ll end up with less pollution per dollar spent.

Diversifying our fuel mix: Currently, 75 percent of U.S. electricity comes from burning coal, natural gas, and oil; nuclear provides another 19 percent; nonrenewable hydroelectric provides 4 percent; other renewables fill in most of the rest.

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