Brits double down on fusion

Two UK companies join Lawrence Livermore's laser-based nuclear fusion project. The UK is already a member of the magnet-based ITER approach. Is fusion drawing closer to reality?

Demonstrating that there might well just be more than one way to skin the nuclear fusion cat, a couple of British companies have joined what some UK scientists might consider the "other" international mega fusion project.

The BBC reports that the two companies – AWE and Rutherford Appleton Laboratory - are now card-carrying members of the National Ignition Facility, which is the huge fusion project at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California.

The UK is already in the ITER club, via government backing. ITER – International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor - is the joint fusion project in Cadarache, France, funded 45% by the EU and by Japan, India, Russia, China, S. Korea and the U.S.

Livermore’s NIF operates in a 10-story building that could accommodate 3 football fields. It is experimenting with a laser-based technology that would cause isotopes of hydrogen to fuse, giving off heat that would drive turbines.

The folks at ITER have the same goal of fusion. But rather than use lasers, they want to deploy super conducting magnets in a giant structure called a tokamak.

Fusion is intended to be cleaner and safer than the nuclear fission reactors in use today, which split atoms rather than fusing them.

We’ll get into the details of how all this supposedly works in a subsequent blog. Suffice to say for now that ever since the idea emerged in the 1950s, fusion has seemed to remain a constant 30-to-50 years away. One of the big problems is that fusion currently uses more energy than it makes available.

But in the last few years, we’ve noticed the emergence of a handful of start-up companies in fusion, and even the arrival of venture capital. It has also not escaped our attention that China is throwing considerable resources at it.

Could the elusive goal of clean electricity via safe nuclear fusion actually be drawing closer?

Photo: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

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