This page contains the current draft of the full text of Chapter 13 of RAFT 2035. All content is subject to change.
To offer comments and suggestions on the following material, please use this shared Google document.
13. Nuclear fusion
Goal 13 of RAFT 2035 is that fusion (the energy source of the stars) will be generating at least 1% of the energy used in the UK.
Nuclear fusion has the potential to provide vast amounts of safe, clean energy, once we have solved the deep technical and collaboration issues that have held up implementation so far.
First conceived as a theoretical possibility in the 1920s by the British physicists Francis Aston and Arthur Eddington, nuclear fusion has regularly been said since the 1940s to be “thirty years in the future”. Containing hydrogen at temperatures over 100 million degrees Centigrade in a fusion reactor poses numerous engineering difficulties.
However, if these problems could be solved, fusion will have many benefits:
- Enormous fuel supplies
- Little waste product
- Low, easily manageable quantities of radioactivity.
To give a comparison: whereas the UK economy uses each day the energy from several supertankers full of oil, less than one thousandth of a single supertanker containing fuel for nuclear fusion – namely isotopes of hydrogen – would provide enough energy to run the UK economy for an entire year.
ITER – ambitious but slow
The largest fusion development project underway is ITER, which stands for “International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor”. It is one of the world’s most ambitious long-term collaborative engineering projects.
Joint US-Soviet funding for ITER was agreed during talks between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985. As of 2005 the main funding has been split between seven parties, with the European Union contributing 45%, and six other countries contributing roughly 9% each: the US, China, Russia, India, Japan, and South Korea.
Construction of the main ITER complex started in 2013, in Saint Paul-lez-Durance, southern France. Construction is scheduled to complete in 2025, with full scale experiments expected by 2035.
Given the lengthy timescales involved, and a history of budget overruns, questions are frequently raised about the viability of the project. These questions often focus on political matters of how the collaboration will proceed, rather than questions of science or engineering.
Some alternative approaches
In parallel with ITER, a number of smaller-scale nuclear fusion research projects have been seeking funding from different sources, including venture capitalists. Being smaller and nimbler, these projects are more open to adopting disruptive innovative ideas.
These projects include:
- The SPARC (SPherical Affordable Robust Compact) reactor at MIT, whose website describes an “overall strategy of speeding up fusion development by using new high-field, high-temperature superconducting (HTS) magnets”
- The Tokamak Energy project in Milton, Oxfordshire in the UK, whose website envisions “industrial scale energy with the ‘Fusion Power Demonstrator’ by 2025” and “clean and abundant fusion power by 2030”
- First Light Fusion, also based in Oxfordshire, which states that it is “pursuing pulsed power driver technology, which we believe will reduce costs by an order of magnitude” – and that it “plans to demonstrate gain – generating more energy than that required to create fusion reactions – by 2024” (something that no fusion project anywhere in the world has managed to achieve).
Options for faster progress
The long timescales of nuclear fusion projects – even the ones which have aspirations to proceed more quickly – mean they experience difficulty in attracting sufficient private funding. Accordingly, the speed of progress is dependent upon public funding being made available.
However, one factor which could accelerate progress is the application of improved artificial intelligence systems:
- To review and propose the design of nuclear fusion systems
- To direct plasma stabilisation and containment in real-time.
Another source of potential breakthrough – admittedly less likely, but still worth considering – is that new quantum computing systems might enable more effective modelling of some of the interactions involved inside fusion reactions.
To accelerate progress with Goal 13, two targets for 2025 are proposed:
- The completion of the construction of ITER facilities, as per its current committed schedule, without any further delays.
- At least one smaller fusion project will make tangible progress, leading as a result to greater public enthusiasm about the feasibility of successful fusion energy being available by 2035.
Progress with each of the RAFT goals depends on positive action from political leaders. However, political leaders have a miserably low reputation in the current time. The next chapter addresses how that fact can change, and how politics can become more effective and productive.
For more information
- ITER “unlimited energy”
- MIT Sparc
- Tokamak Energy
- First Light Fusion
- Financial Times review article Two British companies confident of nuclear fusion breakthrough