Nuclear fusion: record energy released in an experimental reactor in the United Kingdom


New progress in nuclear fusion research. Scientists at the Joint European Torus (JET), located in the United Kingdom, managed to generate 69 megajoules of energy in five seconds with exactly 0.21 milligrams of fuel. Suffice to say almost nothing except that this infinitesimal quantity of fuel released the same energy as the combustion of 2 kilograms of coal. In passing, JET scientists surpassed the previous record – 59 megajoules produced in 5 seconds – which they had established in 2021.

To understand the importance of this new record, we interviewed Jef Ongena, research director at the plasma physics laboratory at the Royal Military Academy.

Before discussing with you the importance of this new record, could you recall how nuclear fusion, which is still at the experimental stage, differs from fission, which is used in nuclear reactors to produce electricity?

Jef Ongena: “In fission, schematically, we will split a heavy atomic nucleus [like uranium or plutonium] into light atoms and this split will release considerable energy. With fusion, we do the opposite: we will fuse two small nuclei which will constitute a larger atom. In this case, 2 isotopes of hydrogen, deuterium and tritium, the fusion of which will give a helium atom. It is this reaction which releases a quantity significant amount of energy. Big advantage of fusion: helium is a noble gas, it is not radioactive, it does not attack the ozone layer, it does not produce the molecules that cause acid rain, etc. . In other words, nuclear fusion has many advantages over fission.”

Now let’s get to this record. Why is it important?

“I must first point out that this is not the first time that the JET has set a record and this record exceeds the one set in 2021. In two years, we have learned a lot, in particular how to optimize the things. The new record shows it clearly, we are capable of producing a lot more energy than last time. We learned how to really produce a lot of fusion power, which will certainly be very useful to accelerate research on ITER, the great machine that is being built in the south of France. Moreover, we have not only learned to produce energy with nuclear fusion, we are also capable of reproducing the results on a day-to-day basis.”

So, what you are saying there is that ultimately the method of producing energy with nuclear fusion, roughly speaking, can be considered to exist. The next challenge is how to industrially exploit this method to produce electricity, right?

“Yes, exactly. But it’s not for tomorrow! The ITER project has fallen behind schedule. It is 80% ready. That said, this project in itself is still only an intermediate step towards a reactor which, one day, will produce electricity. ITER will not give electricity to the network. It is an experiment which should make it possible to verify that, for nuclear fusion, science and technology go together. In summary, JET will “was science, its goal was to prove that fusion was possible. Now the technology must follow. If all goes well, we can hope to begin plans for an experimental machine capable of producing electricity . The horizon is still quite distant: 2050 for a first prototype. And after that, it will still take years for us to really start producing electricity in reactors. It is very likely that I myself will not see not the first reactor producing electricity thanks to nuclear fusion. But the research is so exciting and so interesting that it well rewards the risk of not witnessing the commissioning of the first reactor producing electricity thanks to nuclear fusion. nuclear fusion…”

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