Japan’s JT-60SA fusion reactor project announced first plasma in October of this year to denote the successful upgrades to what is now the world’s largest operational, superconducting tokamak fusion reactor. First designed in the 1970s as Japan’s Breakeven Plasma Test Facility, the JT-60SA tokamak-based fusion reactor is the latest upgrade to the original JT-60 design, following two earlier upgrades (-A and -U) over its decades-long career. The most recent upgrade matches the Super Advanced meaning of the new name, as the new goal of the project is to investigate advanced components of the global ITER nuclear fusion project.
Originally the JT-60SA upgrade with superconducting coils was supposed to last from 2013 to 2020, with first plasma that same year. During commissioning in 2021, a short circuit in the poloidal field coils caused a lengthy investigation and repair, which was completed earlier this year. Although the JT-60SA is only using hydrogen and later deuterium as its fuel rather than the deuterium-tritium (D-T) mixture of ITER, it nevertheless has a range of research objectives that allow for researchers to study many aspects of the ITER fusion reactor while the latter is still under construction.
Since the JT-60SA also has cooled divertors, it can sustain plasma for up to 100 seconds, to study various field configurations and the effect this has on plasma stability, along with a range of other parameters. Along with UK’s JET, China’s HL-2M and a range of other tokamaks at other facilities around the world, this should provide future ITER operators with significant know-how and experience long before that tokamak will generate its first plasma.
Attempts to make a viable nuclear fusion reactor have on the whole been the domain of megabucks projects supported by countries or groups of countries, such as the European JET or newer ITER projects. This is not to say that smaller efforts aren’t capable of making their own advances, operations in both the USA and the UK are working on new reactors that use a novel superconducting tape to achieve a much smaller device.
The reactors in the works from both Oxfordshire-based Tokamak Energy and Massachusetts-based Commonwealth Fusion Systems, or CFS, are tokamaks, a Russian acronym describing a toroidal chamber in which a ring of high-temperature plasma is contained within a spiral magnetic field. Reactors such as JET or ITER are also tokamaks, and among the many challenges facing a tokamak designer is the stable creation and maintenance of that field. In this, the new tokamaks have an ace up their sleeve, in the form of a high-temperature superconducting tape from which those super-powerful magnets can be constructed. This makes the magnets easier to make, cheaper to maintain at their required temperature, and smaller than the low-temperature superconductors found in previous designs.
The world of nuclear fusion is a particularly exciting one to follow in these times of climate crisis, with competing approaches from laser-based devices racing with the tokamak projects to produce the research which will eventually lead to safer carbon-free power. If the CFS or Tokamak Energy reactors lead eventually to a fusion power station on the edge of our cities then it may just be some of the most important work we’ve ever reported.
Doing something for the first time is tough. Yet to replicate the nuclear fusion process that powers the very stars, and do it right here on Earth in a controlled and sustained fashion is decidedly at the top of the list of ‘tough’ first times. What further complicates matters is when in order to even get to this ‘first’ you also add in a massive, international construction project and a heaping of geopolitics, all of which is a far cry from past nuclear fusion experiments.
With the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) as the most visible part of nuclear fusion research, it is perhaps little wonder that the recent string of delays and budget increases is leading some to proclaim doom and gloom over the entire sector. This ironically in contrast with the recent news from the US’s NIF and its laser-based inertial confinement fusion, which is both state-funded and will never produce commercial power.
In light of this, it feels pertinent to ask the question of whether ITER is the proverbial white elephant, or even the mausoleum of international science that a recent article in Scientific American makes it out to be. Is fusion research truly doomed to peter out amidst the seemingly never-ending work on ITER?
This month the media was abuzz with the announcement that the US National Ignition Facility (NIF) had accomplished a significant breakthrough in the quest to achieve commercial nuclear fusion. Specifically, the announcement was that a net fusion energy gain (Q) had been measured of about 1.5: for an input of 2.05 MJ, 3.15 MJ was produced.
What was remarkable about this event compared to last year’s 1.3 MJ production is that it demonstrates an optimized firing routine for the NIF’s lasers, and that changes to how the Hohlraum – containing the deuterium-tritium (D-T) fuel – is targeted result in more effective compression. Within this Hohlraum, X-rays are produced that serve to compress the fuel. With enough pressure, the Coulomb barrier that generally keeps nuclei from getting near each other can be overcome, and that’s fusion.
Based on the preliminary results, it would appear that a few percent of the D-T fuel did undergo fusion. So then the next question: does this really mean that we’re any closer to having commercial fusion reactors churning out plentiful of power?
We’ve seen our fair share of Farnsworth–Hirsch fusors over the years — these high-voltage devices can get ions cooking to the point of achieving nuclear fusion even on a hobbyist’s budget, and even though they won’t solve the world’s energy problems, they certainly make for an impressive light show. While “simple” to build in the relative sense, the examples we’ve seen in the past have still been bulky contraptions supported by a cart full of complex gear befitting a nuclear reactor.
The news reports seem to be using Celsius and Kelvins interchangeably, but at millions of degrees, that’s probably much smaller than measurement error. These various milestones are but stepping stones along the path to create a demonstration large fusion reactor, the goal of the global ITER mega-project. Currently China, the EU including Switzerland and the UK, India, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and the United States are members of ITER, and Australia, Canada, Kazakhstan, and Thailand are participants. The ITER demonstration reactor is being constructed at the Cadarache facility located 60 km northeast of Marseille, France, and is on track for commissioning phase to begin in 2025, going operational ten years later.
After decades of nuclear fusion power being always ten years away, suddenly we are looking at a handful of endeavours striving to be the first to Q > 1, the moment when a nuclear fusion reactor will produce more power than is required to drive the fusion process in the first place. At this point the Joint European Torus (JET) reactor holds the world record with a Q of 0.67.
At the same time, a large international group is busily constructing the massive ITER tokamak test reactor in France, although it won’t begin fusion experiments until the mid-2030s. The idea is that ITER will provide the data required to construct the first DEMO reactors that might see viable commercial fusion as early as the 2040s, optimistically.
And then there’s Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS), a fusion energy startup. Where CFS differs is that they don’t seek to go big, but instead try to make a tokamak system that’s affordable, compact and robust. With their recent demonstration of a 20 Tesla (T) high-temperature superconducting (HTS) rare-earth barium copper oxide (ReBCO) magnet field coil, they made a big leap towards their demonstration reactor: SPARC.