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Casali Explains Fusion Breakthrough

Hot plasma, magnetically confined in a tokamak.

Hot plasma magnetically confined in a tokamak. Photo courtesy of Eye Steel Film.

The UK-based Joint European Torus (JET) laboratory broke its own world record in February when it produced the most energy ever recorded in a fusion reaction—59 megajoules (11 megawatts) of energy, which lasted about five seconds.

Livia Casali.

Livia Casali

Zinkle Fellow and Assistant Professor Livia Casali was one of two international nuclear scientists who spoke to The Conversation Weekly in the podcast episode “Nuclear fusion record broken—what will it take to start generating electricity?” about what fusion is trying to accomplish and the physics that are necessary to make it possible.

JET’s results confirm that sustained high-fusion energy production is achievable and is in agreement with predictions.

“This is a fundamental result, as it means that we understand the underlined physics and we can trust our models for extrapolation to future reactors,” said Casali. “These results also confirm that we can achieve fusion energy using the same fuel mix (deuterium and tritium) as well as the same wall material and operational scenario that we are planning to use for future fusion devices.”

Nuclear fusion is the process for which light atoms fuse together to form heavy ones producing an enormous amount of energy.

“We are trying to reproduce on Earth what keep the stars burning and therefore give us life,” she added. “These results from JET bring us a step ahead in our physics understanding of what is one of the biggest scientific and engineering challenge of all the time. These results also give us great confidence for the operation of future fusion devices.”

The JET experiment is currently the world’s biggest fusion device and uses the same magnetic confinement in a tokamak that will be used at the ITER experiment, which is currently under construction in the south of France. ITER means “the way” in Latin, and the experiment is designed to demonstrate the scientific and technological feasibility of fusion power—that it will one day be possible to get more energy output than energy input when heating plasmas to the necessary temperatures for nuclei to overcome electrostatic energy barriers and fuse together.

“Fusion is really our future,” says Casali. “Harnessing the power of nuclear fusion will solve the energy problem for the future generation.”

Investing in fusion energy is a global priority for tackling climate change while meeting the rising energy demand because it produces inherently safe near-limitless clean electricity source for the long term with no greenhouse gases and using small amounts of fuel that can be sourced worldwide from inexpensive materials.