Once mastered, nuclear fusion has the potential to offer an almost limitless source of energy with minimal environmental impact.
The fusion process involves the fusing of several atoms such as deuterium (heavy hydrogen) and tritium (super heavy hydrogen) at very high temperatures (>100 million ºC) to produce energy. Similar to the process that powers the sun and other stars, fusion gives off no greenhouse gases or harmful emissions.
There are still great challenges to overcome before fusion becomes a viable source of energy for the future but continued funding will not only provide the facilities and research base necessary for progression but also the skilled scientists and engineers needed to continue to work in this area.
There are two main routes to fusion energy, Magnetic Confinement Fusion and Inertial Confinement Fusion.
The UK Magnetic Confinement Fusion Programme is based at Culham Centre for Fusion Energy (CCFE) in Oxfordshire, one of the world’s leading centres for fusion research. In addition, we are collaborating with the EURATOM directorate of the European Commission to fund the Joint European Torus (JET), the largest and most powerful magnetic fusion device in the world.
JET is also based at Culham and is a precursor to the next generation fusion facility "ITER", which is now being built in Cadarache, France.
The UK contribution to Inertial Confinement Fusion takes place at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory and AWE as well as universities co-ordinated through an Inertial Fusion Network. The leading world activity in Inertial Confinement Fusion is taking place at the National Ignition Facility, USA with whom a number of collaborations with Imperial College London and the University of Oxford were recently funded.
In order to sustain the UK skills base in fusion research, the programme has awarded several studentships in this area and supports a fusion doctoral training network based at the University of York.
A strategic review of UK fusion energy took place in 2009 and current activities are overseen by the UK Fusion Advisory Board.
Fusion features in the Government’s Industrial Strategy for nuclear energy, which includes a £15M award for a new world class National Nuclear Users Facility for universities and companies carrying out research into nuclear technology. The facility will have centres at the National Nuclear Laboratory at Sellafield, the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy in Oxfordshire and the University of Manchester’s Dalton Cumbrian Facility.
Many synergies exist between Fission and Fusion nuclear research as illustrated below and it is important that these synergies are exploited in order to make the best of UK capability.