JET Sets New Record
Fusion power holds the promise of abundant energy generation without the release of climate-damaging greenhouse gases whilst, unlike nuclear fission, producing only small quantities of short-lived radioactive waste. Nuclear fusion is the source of the Sun’s power, but recreating nuclear fusion under controlled conditions to generate power on Earth has been the subject of research all around the world for over sixty years.
One of the oldest and most successful projects is hosted not far from J A Kemp LLP’s Oxford office: the Joint European Torus (JET) at the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy. Since the 1970s, JET has been at the forefront of fusion research. Recently, JET smashed its own 1997 record for the most energy ever produced in a sustained fusion reaction. The new record of 59 megajoules from a five second reaction is nearly three times the previous record of 21.7 megajoules.
Perhaps more importantly than the record itself, JET achieved the record using a redesigned reactor with walls made of beryllium and tungsten. This material choice contributed to the relatively long reaction time and high energy output, and mirrors the choice of materials that will be used in another major fusion project, Iter, currently under construction in southern France.
Iter is the product of Eurofusion, a major European fusion power consortium, and aims to be the first fusion reactor to produce more energy than is needed to initiate its fusion reactions. Iter aims to produce 500 megawatts, ten times its required energy input of 50 megawatts. Achieving this would be a major step on the way to practical, commercial fusion power. JET’s recent success validates Iter’s design choices, and raises hopes that Iter will successfully achieve its lofty goals.
Government-backed projects like JET and Iter often capture headlines, but they are not the only sources of fusion innovation. Many private companies around the world are also aiming to develop sustainable fusion power, mainly in the US but including some in the Oxford area. Magnetic confinement fusion using the “tokamak” designs of JET and Iter is considered the frontrunner for achieving the first commercial fusion power plants, but several private companies are investigating other, more unusual technologies, such as inertial confinement and alternative magnetic confinement geometries.
The fundamental principles of fusion and the basic designs of these reactors have been well-known for many years. However, taking them from theory to reality involves overcoming a variety of engineering challenges, such as building novel cooling systems, creating new magnet designs, improving vacuum chambers, and so on. These numerous individual innovations are clear candidates for patent protection.
One of the earliest patents on fusion technology (GB817681A) was filed by George Thomson and Moses Blackman, working for what is now the UK Atomic Energy Authority in 1946. Today, new patent filings on fusion technology continue apace. Patents are a valuable way for private companies to protect their technology and raise investment, and for big government projects to demonstrate the wider utility of the innovations they are producing. J A Kemp LLP has handled applications in various areas relating to fusion technology, including cooling systems, magnet design, and reaction chamber linings.
It is often said that fusion power is always 30 years away. But with the progress at Iter and JET in the last 10 years, Iter currently expects to be switched on for the first time in late 2025. After well over sixty years of active development, could we finally be close to seeing practical fusion power generation?