UK’s JET Tokamak Retires After 40 Years And 105,842 Pulses

The UK’s most famous fusion reactor – the Joint European Torus (JET) tokamak – saw its first plasma on June 25th of 1983. Its final plasma pulse was generated on December 18th of 2023, for a total of 105,842 pulses over forty-and-a-half years and countless experiments.

Comparison of toroidal field (TF) coils from JET, JT-60SA and ITER (Credit: QST)
Comparison of toroidal field (TF) coils from JET, JT-60SA and ITER (Credit: QST)

Originally designed in the 1970s by Euratom members, JET formed the core of Europe’s fusion research program, allowing many of the aspects of tokamak systems to be explored, including deuterium-tritium fusion. Its final day of experiments involved an inverted plasma shape prior to targeting electrons at the tokamak’s inner wall, to study the impact of such damage.

Although JET has received a number of upgrades over the decades, the MAST Upgrade and upcoming STEP fusion reactors at the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy (CCFE) are now headed where JET’s design cannot go. Current advanced tokamak reactors like Japan’s JT-60SA are increasingly using super-conducting coils with¬† often plasma volumes far beyond JET’s, with the focus shifting from plasma research to net energy production.

This means that unless JET somehow gets repurposed/upgraded and recommissioned, this is the final goodbye to one of the world’s most famous and influential fusion reactors.

(Top image: Internal view of the JET tokamak superimposed with an image of plasma flows)

Japan’s JT-60SA Generates First Plasma As World’s Largest Superconducting Tokamak Fusion Reactor

Comparison of toroidal field (TF) coils from JET, JT-60SA and ITER (Credit: QST)
Comparison of toroidal field (TF) coils from JET, JT-60SA and ITER (Credit: QST)

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.

Superconducting Tape Leads To A Smaller Tokamak

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.

The UK’s ST40 Spherical Tokamak Achieves Crucial Plasma Temperatures

As the race towards the first commercially viable nuclear fusion reactor heats up, the UK-based Tokamak Energy has published a paper on its recent achievements with its ST40 spherical tokamak. Most notable is the achieving of plasma temperatures of over 100 million Kelvin, which would put this fusion reactor firmly within the range for deuterium-tritium fusion at a rate that would lead credence to the projection made by Tokamak Energy about building its first commercial fusion plants in the 2030s.

The ST40 is intended to provide the necessary data to construct the ST80-HTS by 2026, which itself would be a testing ground for the first commercial reactor, called the ST-E1, which would be rated at 200 MWe. Although this may seem ambitious, Tokamak Energy didn’t come out of nowhere, but is a spin-of of Culham Centre for Fusion Energy (CCFE), the UK’s national laboratory for fusion research, which was grounded in 1965, and has been for decades been involved in spherical tokamak research projects like MAST and MAST-Upgrade, with STEP as its own design for a commercial fusion reactor.

The advantage offered by spherical tokamaks compared to regular tokamaks is that they favor a very compact construction style which puts the magnets very close to the plasma, effectively making them more efficient in retaining the plasma, with less power required to maintain stable plasma. Although this makes the use of super-conducting electromagnets not necessary, it does mean that wear and tear on these magnets is significantly higher. What this does mean is that this type of tokamak can be much cheaper than alternative reactor types, even if they do not scale as well.

Whether or not Tokamak Energy will be the first to achieve commercial nuclear fusion remains to be seen. So far Commonwealth Fusion’s SPARC and a whole host of Western and Asian fusion projects are vying for that gold medal.

Twenty Seconds At 100 Megakelvins

The Korea Superconducting Tokamak Advanced Research (KSTAR) magnetic fusion reactor claimed a new record last month — containing hydrogen plasma at 100 megakelvins for 20 seconds. For reference, the core temperature of the Earth’s Sun is a mere 15 megakelvins, although to be fair, it has been in operation quite a bit longer than 20 seconds.

South Korea is a member of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) team, a worldwide project researching the science and engineering of nuclear fusion. One of their contributions to the effort is the KSTAR facility, located in the city of Daejeon in the middle of the country (about 150 km south of Seoul).

It is a tokamak-style fusion research reactor using superconducting magnets to generate a magnetic flux density of 3.5 teslas and a plasma current of 2 megaamperes. These conditions are used to confine and maintain the plasma in what’s called the high-confinement mode, the conditions currently favored for fusion reactor designs. Since it went into operation in 2008, it has been creating increasingly longer and hotter “pulses” of plasma.

For all the impressive numbers, the toroidal reactor itself is not that huge. Its major diameter is only 3.6 meters with a minor diameter of 1 meter. What makes the facility so large is all the supporting equipment. Check out the video below — we really like the techniques they use in this virtual tour to highlight key components of the installation.

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