The world’s first commercial nuclear fusion reactor will be operational by 2040, the British government has promised.
The factory – which could theoretically supply an almost unlimited amount clean energy – will be built in Nottinghamshire.
The location was unveiled by Business Secretary Jacob Rees Mogg at the British Conservative Party Conference on Monday.
“The plant will be the first of its kind, built by 2040 and capable of energy on the grid,” he said.
“In doing so, he will prove the commercial viability of the merger energy in the world.”
The government pledged more than £220 million (€252 million) for the STEP (Spherical Tokamak for Energy Production) program to deliver the fusion power plant. It will replace a coal-fired plant that is due to close this year.
However, the researchers say there are still huge hurdles to overcome before the technology is viable.
What is nuclear fusion and is it safe?
Fusion is the process that creates heat and light inside the sun.
In a fusion reaction, two atoms collide to form a single atomreleasing massive amounts of energy.
This process is constantly taking place inside stars, where tons of hydrogen atoms collide every millisecond. When they break their atomic bonds – and form heavier helium atoms – they generate heat and light.
Researchers want to replicate this process on Earth.
To do this, they would need to heat hydrogen gas to over 100 million degrees.
There is no material that can withstand direct contact with this temperature. Thus, the superheated atoms will be forced to join powerful magnets inside a device called a “tokamak”.
If something goes wrong inside a fusion reactor, the device simply shuts down – so there’s no risk of this colossal heat being released.
The reaction is different from nuclear fission, the process fueling the nuclear center.
In fission reactions, atoms are separated rather than fused.
Like fusion, fission generates energy – but it also produces radioactive by-products.
Will the nuclear fusion power plant work?
Theoretically, nuclear fusion could generate huge amounts of carbon neutral energy – nearly four million times more energy than using coal, oil or gas.
But a working commercial plant will need to overcome many logistical hurdles, including heating large amounts of gas to 100 million degrees Celsius.
Building a commercial reactor will be a “difficult and expensive” process, warns the International Energy Foundation.
Other reactor projects regularly encounter difficulties.
Thirty-five countries are cooperating to build a giant factory in the south of France. The ITER project will not produce electricity for homes – rather it is an experiment to see if nuclear fusion can produce more energy than it consumes.
It is over budget and over schedule, with its launch date scheduled for 2050.
“One of the reasons ITER is behind schedule is that it’s really, really difficult,” Professor Ian Chapman, chief executive of Britain’s Atomic Energy Authority, told the BBC.
“What we’re doing is basically pushing the boundaries of what’s known in the world of technology.
Nevertheless, researchers are making progress. In February this year, the British laboratory JET (Joint European Torus) set a new record for the amount of energy that can be generated by the fusion of two forms of hydrogen.
The experiments produced 59 megajoules of energy in five seconds (11 megawatts of power) – enough to boil 60 kettles of water.