An independent endeavour

Published in Physics World, 1 Apr 2016

Fusion doesn’t need billions of euros – at least that is what venture capitalists claim. Jon Cartwright takes a look

Fusion is just 20 years away, and always will be. Those who work on publicly funded fusion must be tired of hearing this well-worn joke, but it is not without an element of truth. After all, 2016 is the year in which ITER – the world’s first “more energy out than in” fusion reactor that is currently being built in France – was originally scheduled to begin operations, by confining its first plasma. ITER’s current schedule predicts that operations will actually begin in the mid-2020s – nearly 20 years after the facility was officially given the go-ahead – but that could yet be further delayed. The estimated cost, too, has tripled from around €5bn ($5.5bn) to €15bn.
ITER will be big because physics says it must be big: as a reactor grows, you get more output power from a given input power. At least, that is the conventional view. In January last year, however, physicist Alan Costly and others at the company Tokamak Energy in Abingdon, UK, published a paper claiming that the fusion-power gain depends only weakly on reactor size (Nucl. Fusion 55 033001). The paper, which has been downloaded more than 12,000 times, implies that gargantuan projects such as ITER are not the only route to fusion power. “The basic message is that smaller, lower-cost pilot plants and reactors may be feasible,” says Tokamak Energy’s chief executive, David Kingham. […]

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