General Fusion, a Canadian company with Amazon’s Jeff Bezos as one of its backers is building a Nuclear Fusion power demonstration plant at Culham in Oxfordshire.
Whereas current nuclear power plants split atoms in a process known as ‘fission’ to generate energy, ‘fusion’ generates energy by fusing atoms together, which is the same process that powers our sun. The fusion process, which can actually create temperatures much hotter than the sun, is achieved by combining lighter elements (hydrogen) to make a heavier one (helium) such as in the tokamak reactor design which uses powerful magnetic fields (magnetised target fusion) to control charged gas/plasma, all contained within a doughnut-shaped container.
The Benefits of Fusion
Fusion power, which was described by National Geographic (2019) as the “holy grail for the future of nuclear power” is safer than fission nuclear power, produces very little radioactive waste, and is a carbon-free energy source.
Culham Demonstration Plant
The Mega Amp Spherical Tokamak experiment/demonstration plant at Culham, is estimated to cost around $400m and aims to be operational by 2025.
The facility, which is 70 percent the size of a commercial reactor, is owned and managed by the UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA). It has been reported that the owners of the plant, General Fusion, have been backed by investment from Amazon’s Jeff Bezos for more than ten years and, after raising $100m in its last funding round, is likely to use the successful operation of its UK plant as a basis to return to investors looking for more money.
The UK Government is reported to have committed £222 million to General Fusion’s Spherical Tokamak for Energy Production (Step) programme at the Culham site which could lead the design and build of the world’s first prototype fusion power plant by 2040, which, it is thought, could support hundreds of jobs in Oxfordshire.
There are currently different approaches to methods being used globally for fusion. The challenge to all of them, however, is to get more energy out of the reactions than is put in.
Breakthrough in May at Culham
In May, the fusion programme at Culham reported making a breakthrough in the development of a better way to remove the excess heat produced by fusion reactions, thereby protecting the materials inside the reactor, and extending the amount of time the fusion reactor can operate for. The new system, which was reported to work in a similar way to a car-exhaust, led to a tenfold reduction in the excess heat.
Back in March there were also reports that the site of the old Ratcliffe-on-Soar power station in Nottinghamshire (due to be decommissioned) could be perfect for a prototype, commercial nuclear fusion reactor.
What Does This Mean For Your Business?
Finding a way to supply a limitless, clean, cost-effective, and safe power source could benefit us all, help the environment, and create new opportunities in a whole new sector. For the UK government, the chance to develop a fusion industry in the UK and be seen to be at the cutting edge of the new industry is the justification for the investment. For Canadian company General Fusion, having a project in the UK is a way to help it expand its geographical presence and broaden its growing global network of government, institutional, and industrial partners in what is becoming a battle to establish early market leadership and promote its approach to and version of fusion as being the preferred format.