Fusion Research Reaches 'Milestone,' Could Lead to Cheap, Clean Energy

Scientists are closer than ever to cracking the code of nuclear fusion and providing an alternative source of energy that would be cheaper and cleaner for the environment.

Researchers at the UK's Oxfordshire Joint European Torus (JET) performed a record-breaking experiment they say has brought them closer than ever to harnessing energy from nuclear fusion. They reported generating a record "59 megajoules of sustained fusion energy" over five seconds, which shatters—and more than doubles—the 1997 record, also set by the JET, of 21.7 megajoules.

The experiment was conducted in December. The JET is part of a larger research mega-project that includes the U.K., China, European Union and the U.S.

"Record results announced today are the clearest demonstration worldwide of the potential for fusion energy to deliver safe and sustainable low carbon energy," JET scientists said in a press release on Wednesday from the U.K. Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA). "This success is a major step forward on fusion's roadmap as a safe, efficient, low carbon means of tackling the global energy crisis."

Nuclear fusion reactions are generated by the lab in a specialized machine called a tokamak, which uses electromagnetic fields to control the atoms. The largest tokamak of its kind is the one found at the JET.

Fusion works by joining two lighter elements together, and is the opposite of fission, which breaks apart a heavier element. Fission, which is used in nuclear power plants worldwide, is considered inherently more dangerous than fusion.

This is due to the instability of a fission reaction, as well as fission's propensity to create significantly more radioactive waste, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Fusion is considered a safer option due to the low amount of radioactive waste that it produces. Scientists state that it is also unable to cause a nuclear accident, because it does not form a chain reaction.

Nuclear Tokamak
A record-breaking fusion reaction was generated at a laboratory in the United Kingdom in December. While fusion as a mainstay power source remains decades away, scientists lauded the achievement as a step toward a safer and more cost-efficient form of fuel. Here, the nuclear tokamak that generated the reaction can be seen. U.K. Atomic Energy Authority

However, fusion reactions are difficult to sustain for long periods, and as a result, advancements in its use as a long-term power solution have been slow. IAEA estimates have stated that a prototype fusion reactor will not be built until 2040.

Despite this, a number of other individuals involved with the project also lauded the outcome of the record-breaking test.

"These milestone results are testament to the UK's role as a global leader in fusion energy research," said George Freeman, the British Minister for Science, Research and Innovation. "They are evidence that the ground-breaking research and innovation being done here in the UK, and via collaboration with our partners across Europe, is making fusion power a reality."

"These landmark results have taken us a huge step closer to conquering one of the biggest scientific and engineering challenges of them all," said Ian Chapman, the CEO of the UKAEA. "It's clear we must make significant changes to address the effects of climate change, and fusion offers so much potential."

"We're building the knowledge and developing the new technology required to deliver a low carbon, sustainable source of baseload energy that helps protect the planet for future generations," Chapman continued.

While the first prototype fusion reactor may not be seen for a few more decades, experiments are scheduled to be seen at labs throughout the world until then. This includes a project called the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, currently in development and expected to generate a fusion reaction in 2035.

Newsweek has reached out to the IAEA for comment.