Could Fusion Energy Provide An Answer To The Energy Crisis In The UK And A Breakthrough For Spaceflight?

3rd Jul 2024
Could Fusion Energy Provide An Answer To The Energy Crisis In The UK And A Breakthrough For Spaceflight?

Great Britain is now facing an energy crisis. In response, Labour’s vision for a national energy provider, Great British Energy (GBE), claims to be a great solution to guide the UK into a renewable energy era, if adopted. Additionally, as part of a broader plan to achieve a fully green electricity grid by 2030, this initiative could position the country as a leader in clean energy providers worldwide as well as in space.

The main idea of GBE is to launch a government-run energy company. This step could potentially reduce energy costs and create a large number of jobs in the energy sector. Much like Sweden’s Vattenfall, the company would function autonomously and invest in clean energy sources like wind, solar, tidal, nuclear, and other alternative energy sources.

Among these sources, fusion energy has several benefits as both a cost-effective and clean option, providing a stable and abundant power supply with minimal environmental impact. Overall, its development could help achieve the UK’s renewable energy goals, ensuring energy security and, what is important, reducing dependence on fossil fuels in various sectors, from electricity generation and industrial processes to water desalination and space exploration.

In this context, let’s explore the fusion energy landscape in the United Kingdom. We’ll explore the company’s current progress, the potential advantages of fusion energy, and the challenges that may arise along the way.

What Is Fusion Energy: A Brief Overview

Fusion energy is obtained from combining atomic nuclei. When two or more nuclei merge, they form a denser nucleus and release a lot of energy. This is the process that powers stars like our Sun, making them shine and produce heat by turning hydrogen nuclei into helium.

fusion energy empowers sun
Credit: International Atomic Energy Agency

There is a hitch: capturing fusion energy on Earth is a complicated process. The difficulty is that when heated over 150 million degrees Celsius, hydrogen atoms become plasma, a charged gas. To contain this, scientists created the Tokamak.

What Is A Tokamak?

A tokamak is a device surrounded by a strong magnetic field that holds the plasma. This makes it possible to sustain fusion reactions for longer periods. Today, tokamaks are one of the most effective designs for the production of controlled nuclear fusion.

A tokamak
Credit: CCFE, JET

Why We Need Fusion Energy?

While the national need for energy rises, concerns about the environmental consequences of conventional energy sources grow as well. By 2050, we might use twice as much electricity as we do now because there will be more people and they’ll have better living conditions, which will lead to an even bigger increase in energy use. 

In this case, fusion energy could be an answer to the world’s energy needs. Unlike fossil fuels or renewable energy sources like wind and solar, fusion offers a consistent and reliable energy source that can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and combat climate change.

“The global need for schedulable and abundant low-carbon energy now presents itself to us with a stark clarity, and so the imperative for fusion energy has never been never greater,” commented Tim Bestwick, Chief Technology Officer at the UK Atomic Energy Authority.

Therefore, competition among countries and scientists to discover new, eco-friendly ways of making electricity is gaining new momentum.

Commercial Side Of Fusion Energy

According to the Telegraph, the transition of commercial nuclear fusion from the realm of science fiction to our reality has been remarkably rapid: it occurred in less than a decade. The analysts say that the emergence of commercial nuclear fusion as a viable energy solution has outpaced expectations. The reasons for this are complex, covering breakthroughs in superconductors, lasers, and advanced materials. Recent milestones, such as Britain’s First Light Fusion breaking pressure records as well as Commonwealth Fusion Systems achieving a record-breaking magnet strength, have drastically altered the economics of fusion power. 

These advancements have enabled the development of smaller, more efficient fusion reactors, bringing the prospect of fusion-generated electricity for the grid within reach.

“Fusion has the potential to revolutionise the low-carbon energy supply and provide the non-variable power that will be required to meet the world’s ambitious goals. The private fusion industry is rapidly accelerating towards commercial power,” said Melanie Windridge, Communications Director at the Fusion Industry Association.

While significant progress has been made, challenges remain, including achieving sustained plasma confinement, developing materials that can withstand the extreme conditions inside a fusion reactor, and addressing the high costs of fusion energy production.

UK As A Leading Force For Fusion Power

In the last few years, Britain has been making significant strides in advancing fusion energy, driven by the legacy of projects like ITER’s Joint European Torus at Culham and effective leadership. American scientists Matthew Moynihan and Alfred Bortz, authors of Fusion’s Promise, highlight the UK as the world’s most proactive nation in pursuing fusion power. 

They commend the UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA), led by Sir Ian Chapman, for establishing initiatives like the Fusion Cluster and the £650 million Fusion Futures Programme, which expedite the transition from research to practical fusion energy production. As a result of these efforts, the UK has emerged as the leading technical force in the global race to achieve fusion power.

Currently, there are three largest providers of fusion energy in the UK: Tokamak Energy, First Light Fusion, and Culham Centre for Fusion Energy (CCFE).

Tokamak Energy

Tokamak Energy is a private fusion energy company based in Oxfordshire. The company was the first to start developing compact spherical tokamaks, a type of fusion reactor designed for commercial fusion power production.

Tokamak Energy
An illustrative image of the fusion pilot plant being developed by Tokamak Energy. Credit: Tokamak Energy

They have made significant strides in their research and have attracted attention for their innovative approach to fusion technology. The company promises to “deliver clean, secure, affordable fusion energy in the 2030s”.

First Light

First Light Fusion is headquartered in Oxfordshire. Unlike traditional approaches like tokamaks design, the company is pursuing a different fusion concept called Inertial Confinement Fusion (ICF). 

“Inertial fusion is a pulsed process. This means it works like an internal combustion engine where our target contains the fuel, and our fusion driver is the spark plug. When hit by the driver, each target releases a large amount of energy,”  they say on their website. “Our pulsed approach gives great design flexibility, trading off energy per shot and frequency. Our aim is to develop the lowest risk and simplest power plant design possible. By increasing the energy per shot, and reducing the frequency, we can achieve a smaller overall plant size with a much lower risk”.

First Light’s Machine 3
First Light’s Machine 3. Credit: First Light

They have developed a unique fusion reactor design that utilises compression techniques to achieve fusion reactions.

Culham Centre For Fusion Energy (CCFE)

Located at Culham Science Centre in Oxfordshire, CCFE is the UK’s national laboratory for fusion research and home to the Joint European Torus (JET), the world’s largest operational magnetic confinement fusion experiment. 

CCFE conducts fundamental research on fusion plasma physics, materials science, and fusion reactor engineering. 

“Fusion is one of the most promising options for generating the world’s cleaner energy needs. CCFE scientists and engineers are developing the technology to bring fusion electricity to the grid,” they explain on their website. 

CCFE’s tokamak – a magnetic bottle containing hot plasma fuel – is the design that CCFE and partners are working to bring to the commercial energy market.

Integration Of Fusion Energy Into Great British Energy (GBE)

Achieving net positive energy from fusion reactions as part of GBE could present several benefits for the UK’s energy system:

  • Decrease the UK’s dependence on energy from other countries, improving the country’s energy security.
  • Investing in fusion technology has the potential to create new workplaces in the field of energy.
  • Over time, fusion energy could become a cheaper alternative energy source for both consumers and businesses.

Challenges on the Path to Fusion Energy

  • To make fusion reactions last, many tricky technical issues must be addressed: keeping the hot plasma in place, heating it up, and controlling it throughout the process. 
  • Engineering and running fusion reactors take a long time to develop. 
  • The creation and maintenance of power plants require large expenses at every stage, from research to development.
  • Fusion tech demands new and complicated rules, like making sure it’s safe, managing waste properly, and making people feel okay about it.

Fusion Energy In Space

Because space exploration is an important industry that requires a lot of energy today, fusion energy could have several potential profitable applications.

  • Fusion-powered engines offer higher thrust and specific impulse compared to conventional chemical rockets or nuclear fission-based propulsion systems.
  • Source of power for spacecraft on long-duration missions.
  • Supporting humans living on other planets.
  • Mining resources (such as water, metals, and rare minerals from space) mining on asteroids, moons, or other celestial bodies.
  • Relatively fast travel on fusion rockets within a human lifetime.

Pulsar Fusion Company For Space Operations

Pulsar is a company specializing in clean space propulsion systems and services. They develop an integrated ecosystem of propulsion systems and services. Their main projects are a Hybrid HDPE Engine (operational) and a Liquid Hydrogen (LH2) Engine (still developing). The prominent features of hybrid propulsion are its simplicity, safety, stop-and-restart capability, and the ability to throttle. Hybrid propellants are typically storable and non-toxic, further enhancing safety. The Pulsar rocket engine, which uses liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen, is valuable for its strong performance without adding to carbon emissions. 

Pulsar's nuclear fusion engine
Pulsar’s nuclear fusion engine. Credit: Pulsar Fusion

Pulsar is currently producing its first series of liquid hydrogen (LH2) engines at its facility in Bletchley. Additionally, the company has arranged a test site in Scotland to demonstrate its 15 kN static launcher in the second quarter of 2023. Following this, a vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) demonstration is scheduled for the fourth quarter at Pulsar’s existing test site in Switzerland.

Overall, the idea of integrating fusion energy into the Great British Energy (GBE) program is ambitious and forward-looking. However, it needs to be balanced with a realistic assessment of the current state of fusion technology and its potential timeline for commercial viability.

As the UK charts its course towards a greener and more sustainable energy future, careful consideration of the opportunities and challenges of applying fusion energy would be essential in shaping the nation’s energy policies and strategies. Stay tuned for further updates on this groundbreaking endeavour!

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