At 150 million degrees Celsius it is hotter than the sun, and scientists from across the world visit the UK to work on the fusion reactor that holds the world record for creating the most power from fusion.
When the latest series of experiments start, in the middle of June, the scientists hope it will be start of a path to set a new world record for the amount of energy produced.
The fusion reactor, JET (Joint European Torus), and the UK’s own compact version, MAST, are both housed at the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy in Oxfordshire, UK.
Factor visited the site and spoke to fusion scientist Dr Maximos Tsalas about the work being done at the centre.
At present the JET reactor at the centre in England holds the world record for the amount of fusion energy created, and has done since 1997.
When it was set the machine managed to create 60% of the power which was put into it. However the scientists at the centre are looking to beat this in coming years.
They want to be able to break even, which will be a significant hurdle to achieve in the longer road to commercialisation.
Maximos said: “For the moment we have a key set of experiments that is going to happen in the next five years. With these we are going to do a campaign where we are going to aim to try and break the fusion record again.
“This is a very important set of experiments which will tell us a lot about the future and the next generation of reactors, which is basically ITER. We hope to solve some of the key problems in this campaign.
“After this it is a bit more difficult to see where the future of JET is as we still have yet to define the timescale on which these experiments will happen.”
When operational Maximos says JET, which has been a joint European project for 25 years, can have up to 500 people working on it at once – but it can be run by 20 people at very minimum.
To enter the room where JET is located it involves several levels of security and also entry through an airlock.
While it is running there is no access JET and each experiment is ran from the control centre.
To enter in periods where it is not operational humans can entre but only wearing a pressurised suit.
However robotic arms controlled by engineers are able to make repairs and improvements to centre of the reactor – which is called the tokamak.
When running it creates around 15gb of data every 30 seconds – however when fusion reaches a commercial scale it will be a simpler machine due to the removal of the monitoring equipment that is in place for the scientists.
“JET is a very complicated machine, In order for it to start operating first we need to start a very strong magnetic field then we put in some gas inside and then we make what is called the plasma,” said Maximos.
“We use various methods to heat it up to very high temperatures – typically temperatures reaching 150m degrees Celsius.
“If you were to go inside the tokamak what you could see is a donut shaped vacuum vessel which has a very high vacuum.
“We create a very high vacuum and after that we inject some gas and we try to heat it up again. What you would see if you went inside there, you wouldn’t see that much as everything is covered by a lot of machinery.
“You will see magnets a lot of diagnostics which measure various things, you could see vacuum vessels, you will see a lot of pumps and so on.
“But the important thing is at the heart of the machine is a very large donut shaped vessel where all the action happens.”
See our piece tomorrow on the future of fusion power and what it could mean for the world.
Images courtesy of the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy.