Japan introduced the world’s first experimental nuclear fusion reactor on Friday, which represents a step towards eliminating dependence on fossil fuels.
The project is a joint venture between the European Union and Japan. According to researchers associated with the project, the goal of the JT-60SA reactor is to investigate the efficacy and feasibility of fusion as a potential large-scale carbon-free source of net energy that produces more energy than what is used to fuel it.
Inside a hangar located in Naka, north of Tokyo, there is a six-story-high machine that consists of a doughnut-shaped “tokamak” vessel designed to contain swirling plasma heated to temperatures of 200 million degrees Celsius (360 million degrees Fahrenheit).
Nuclear fusion is the reaction that fuels our sun and other stars. It possesses the potential to generate vast amounts of energy. However, scientists have not yet achieved energy efficiency in this process on Earth.
Nuclear fusion is a cleaner process than nuclear fission. Combining two light atomic nuclei to fuse into a heavier nucleus, which produces huge amounts of energy. Fission in comparison happens by splitting a large atom into smaller particles and harnessing the energy produced as a byproduct to the reaction. Fission produces less than energy than fusion reactions and produces radioactive material as a waste product, whereas fusion does not.
The JT-60SA reactor aims to explore the feasibility of fusion as a means to generate safe, large-scale, and carbon-free net energy—with the generation of more energy than the energy input required to produce it.
Researchers estimated in October that it would require two years for the reactor to generate the plasmas required for experiments, as reported by the publication Science.
The collaboration on this project serves as a precursor to its larger counterpart in France, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), currently under construction.
Both projects share the ultimate goal of persuading hydrogen nuclei to fuse into a single, heavier element, helium. This fusion process releases energy in the form of light and heat, replicating the phenomenon occurring inside the sun.
First Images of Japan's new nuclear fusion reactor (JT-60SA)
JT-60SA is a remarkable achievement in the field of fusion energy. It is the largest and most advanced superconducting tokamak* in the world, and it aims to study the physics of fusion and support the international… pic.twitter.com/hXbVrsrq2X
— Wolf of X (@tradingMaxiSL) December 2, 2023
Nuclear fusion is a cleaner process than nuclear fission
Researchers at ITER, despite facing challenges such as being over budget, falling behind schedule, and encountering significant technical issues, aspire to attain the holy grail of nuclear fusion technology: achieving net energy production.
This facility, housing the world’s largest laser, used an approach compared to ITER and JT-60SA. They employed a method called inertial confinement fusion, wherein they directed high-energy lasers simultaneously into a tiny cylinder containing hydrogen.
The fusion experiments conducted in JT-60SA will provide insights for the scientific advancements anticipated in ITER, a reactor with six times the volume of its Japanese counterpart. It’s worth noting that JT-60SA will not incorporate tritium, a scarce hydrogen isotope, in its reactions, whereas ITER intends to introduce it into its operations by 2035, as reported by Science.
In the inauguration, Sam Davis, the reactor’s deputy project leader, said that JT-60SA will “bring us closer to fusion energy.” He emphasized that it is the outcome of a collaboration involving over 500 scientists and engineers, along with more than 70 companies spanning Europe and Japan.
In December of last year, the National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in the United States accomplished the achievement of “net energy gain.”
While large collaborations are engaged in developing extensive tokamaks and experimental nuclear fusion reactors called stellarators, projects like the MIT-CFS collaboration’s SPARC experiment are constructing smaller reactors that utilize high-temperature superconducting magnets. SPARC is on track for completion in 2025, coinciding with the current expected timeline for ITER’s first plasma.