Research & Development

Nuclear Fusion / Construction Of UK Demonstration Plant To Begin This Summer

By David Dalton
18 January 2023

Oxfordshire reactor could begin full operation in 2027
Construction Of UK Demonstration Plant To Begin This Summer
UKAEA said siting the facility at its Culham Campus enables General Fusion to access world-leading science and engineering capabilities. Coourtesy General Fusion.
Plans for a fusion energy demonstration project at the UK Atomic Energy Authority’s (UKAEA) Culham Campus in Oxfordshire have been approved by the local authority, with commissioning planned for 2026 and full operations by early 2027.

UKAEA said that following a resolution to grant planning permission South Oxfordshire District Council planning committee, construction of the plant is expected to start this summer.

When construction of the building is complete, US-based General Fusion – the magnetised target fusion company that designed the demo plant – will lease the building from UKAEA.

General Atomics said the plant will become the world’s largest and most capable prototype for a magnetised target fusion power plant – a prototype intended to demonstrate a massive step forward in practical fusion energy.

The facility is the result of over a decade of development; it assembles proven components into a scaled version of our commercial machine.

Built to 70% scale of a commercial power plant, the demonstration will create fusion conditions in a power plant-relevant environment, achieving temperatures of over 100 million °C.

‘Crucial Step’ On Path To Zero-Carbon Energy

“This is a crucial step on the path to eventually powering homes, businesses and industry with zero-carbon fusion energy,” UKAEA said. The facility itself will not generate power.

UKAEA said siting the facility at its Culham Campus, part of a UK fusion cluster, enables General Fusion to access world-leading science and engineering capabilities, such as knowledge and experience in designing, constructing and operating the Joint European Torus (Jet), the world’s largest and most advanced tokamak fusion reactor.

Architectural firm AL_A, with Ove Arup Engineers, designed the 10,500-square-meter building to project “a confident message to the public about the extraordinary potential of this technology,” according to Amanda Levete, AL_A founder and principal.

In General Fusion’s magnetised target approach to deuterium-tritium fusion power, a plasma target is injected into a spherical cavity inside a rotating chamber of liquid lithium.

The chamber is surrounded by a system of pneumatic pistons actuated with variable timings and pressures that is responsible for first shaping that inner cavity into a sphere and then collapsing the cavity to compress and heat the toroidal plasma target to fusion conditions.

While magnetic fields keep the plasma from physically contacting the liquid metal, heat from the fusion reaction is transferred to the metal, which is then used to generate steam and drive a turbine.

In October, the UK government announced that the West Burton A power station site in Nottinghamshire, central England, had been selected as the home for Spherical Tokamak for Energy Production (Step), a prototype fusion energy plant which aims to be built by 2040.

The government is providing £220m (€249m, $271m) of funding for the first phase of Step, which will see UKAEA produce a concept design by 2024.

What is Nuclear Fusion?

Fusion is based on the same physical reactions that power the Sun and stars, and is the process by which two light atomic nuclei combine while releasing large amounts of energy. This technology has significant potential to deliver safe, sustainable, low carbon energy for future generations.

Energy is produced by fusing together light atoms, such as hydrogen, at extremely high pressures and temperatures. These particular conditions are present in the Sun’s core, delivering temperatures of up to 15 million °C.

The extremely high temperatures can transfer a gas into a state of plasma, which is essentially an electrically-charged gas. Although plasma is rarely found on Earth, it is thought that more than 99% of the universe exists as plasma.

Harnessing and reining in the forces involved is a huge challenge, as at the heart of a fusion reactor is a super-hot cloud of electrically charged gas that needs to be heated to 150 million °C – many times hotter than the sun’s core.

A fusion power plant would combine hydrogen atoms to generate energy without giving off the carbon emissions that contribute to climate change.

The UK facility will be the result of over a decade of reactor development by General Fusion. Courtesy General Fusion.

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