Nuclear fusion reaches a new milestone with more on the horizon

View inside a tokamak fusion reactor located at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
View inside a tokamak fusion reactor located at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Image Credit: Flickr/ORNL

European scientists working at a research facility outside of Oxford, England hit a new milestone in fusion energy generation earlier this week.

The scientists were able to create and maintain a fusion reaction of 59 megajoules for five seconds. It's the longest, and most powerful, fusion reaction sustained by a research institution to date.

While these numbers still fall far short of what would be needed to reach break-even, where a fusion reaction would reach a state where the amount of energy released was equal to the energy put into the reaction, they're useful as a milestone for other public projects in Europe.

The Joint European Torus is a tokamak-style reactor built to advance fusion research in Europe. The reactor is powered up in brief intervals to test different components of reactor technologies that are currently being integrated into the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor.

Fusion reactors, which attempt to replicate the ways in which the sun produces energy on Earth, have raised billions from private investors and governments over the last several decades.

In recent years, technologies that try to fuse hydrogen atoms together under intense heat and pressure conditions have made staggering advances -- which some scientists say could mean a working fusion reactor within the next decade.

Critics of the technology have argued that these claims always put nuclear fusion twenty to thirty years on the horizon.

"The record—and more importantly, the things we’ve learned about fusion under these conditions and how it fully confirms our predictions—shows that we are on the right path to a future world of fusion energy," Tony Donné, the program manager at EUROfusion, which runs JET, told the Reuters news service. "If we can maintain fusion for five seconds, we can do it for five minutes and then five hours as we scale up our operations in future machines."

FootPrint Coalition has invested in a private company using new technologies to reduce the size and scale of a fusion reactor for actual commercial development.

Commonwealth Fusion Systems uses new magnet technology that can withstand the temperatures and pressures required to generate and sustain a fusion reaction -- and at a scale that allows it to be developed relatively quickly.

"From the very beginning, we have strongly believed that this [fusion] technology could be breakthrough on the path to producing net zero energy. Magnetic fusion can significantly increase the pace at which the world cuts its carbon emissions," said Claudio Descalzi, the chief executive officer of Eni, in a statement about the $1.8 billion invested into Commonwealth Fusion. "We have worked with the CFS team for these last years because we recognized that their work could transform the energy landscape. Thanks to their monumental breakthroughs, a commercial fusion plant is soon going to be within reach. We’re proud to be backing the company with significant new investment together with project management and engineering expertise to make that prospect a reality."