Tokamak Energy announced that its ST-40 reactor achieved an impressive temperature threshold for nuclear fusion. (Image Credit: Tokamak Energy)
Every year, the U.S. sees a 9% increase in energy prices, which means that more affordable fossil fuel alternatives are essential for the environment and consumers' wallets. Nuclear fusion provides the answer to that. Recently, Tokamak Energy, a UK-based nuclear energy company, revealed that its spherical ST-40 tokamak reactor reached 100 million degrees Celsius, sufficient enough to generate feasible nuclear fusion.
Of course, that doesn't mean tokamaks are the only reactors being used for nuclear fusion testing. More popular options, such as the Livermore Labs inertial confinement program, achieved fusion breakthroughs earlier this year. Although Tokamak Energy's ST-40 isn't the only tokamak to reach such high temperatures, it's the first privately-funded and spherical type to complete that process. In 1978, the Princeton Large Torus tokamak managed to hit that same breakthrough.
Both privately funded projects, such as the ST-40, and government-funded projects, like France's ITER, work with each other in a symbiotically and synergistically manner. In turn, private company breakthroughs provide excellent progression toward other projects. Thanks in large part to public funding, fusion science can now tackle riskier, significant steps toward fusion energy experiments. However, most private efforts may fail to meet their goals, which means that the whole field benefits from these results. This could lead to one or more finding success, paving the way to the accessibility of clean, safe, and sustainable energy sources.
Nobody knows for sure how the ST-40 managed to reach that milestone. The tokamak features unique components that potentially contribute to its performance. For starters, the spherical design allows the internal magnets, which are smaller and cheaper, to be placed near the plasma stream. This generates more powerful fields compared to torus-shaped tokamaks. Plus, the reactor relies on high-temperature superconducting magnets operating between -418 and -328 °F to keep it cool.
There are still many questions surrounding its commercialization even though the ST-40 achieved such a remarkable breakthrough. For how long was the temperature sustained, and at what density? Physics and technological advancements must be achieved to produce commercial fusion energy. Even then, a fusion power system, power conversion technology, and next-gen radiation-resistant materials will need to be developed.
Tokamak Energy is currently designing the next-gen reactor that could help lead to the first fusion power plant development by the 2030s.
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