Nuclear fusion now a viable energy source, claims scientist

Prospect of cheap, emission-free energy within sight, says UK atomic energy chief

Energy generated through nuclear fusion could be available in the next decade, according to a world authority on the subject.

Prof Steven Cowley, chief executive of the UK Atomic Energy Authority, believes the world's first nuclear fusion power plant in France could be producing viable electricity in the 2020s.

Nuclear fusion is regarded as the holy grail of energy. It is the same process which powers the Sun and all the other stars in the universe.

Hydrogen atoms are forced together under great heat and pressure to create helium atoms which then create huge bursts of energy.


Prof Cowley believes that, if harnessed properly, nuclear fusion can provide half of all mankind’s energy needs by the middle of the century.

He will give a lecture this evening, hosted by Astronomy Ireland, on how observing the Sun's coronal mass ejections can provide scientists with better ideas on how to control the process of creating nuclear fusion on Earth.

Much of the world’s investment in nuclear fusion is concentrated in the ITER project in Provence, in which Ireland is a partner.

Superheated gases

It plans to use superheated gases to smash together deuterium and tritium, both isotopes of hydrogen, to create the equivalent energy of half a conventional power station.

Known as a “tokamak”, the device used is based on the design of the Joint European Torus (JET), a European pilot project at Culham in Oxfordshire, which is run by Prof Cowley.

Nuclear fusion holds out the promise of unlimited safe, cheap energy. It uses deuterium, which is abundant in seawater, and lithium, another common substance. If successful it could produce an emissions-free nuclear energy that would not leave behind harmful radioactive waste.

However, recreating the process in a cost-effective way has so far proved to be beyond the capabilities of even the best scientists on Earth.

Prof Cowley’s laboratory in Oxfordshire has had a number of firsts and remains the only place which can produce fusion energy on a regular basis.

In 1991 it instigated the world’s first controlled release of fusion energy, and in 1997 it produced a world-record 16 megawatts of fusion power, albeit for just two seconds.

The European Union has set the 2040s as a target goal to produce electricity based on fusion power, but Prof Cowley believes it can be done quicker than that.

He explained: “I hope that with ITER that in the 2020s we will be able to demonstrate a full-blown sustained fusion burn, with lots of energy coming out. It will ignite worldwide support and push through to deliver electricity at that point.

“We can see that we can do it [nuclear fusion]. It is a case of getting the electricity cheap enough and reliable enough that it will produce electricity that you want to buy.”

The lecture will take place in the Schrödinger Lecture Theatre at Trinity College Dublin this evening at 8pm.

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy is a news reporter with The Irish Times