Getting smashed

Nuclear fusion expert Dr Kate Lancaster (pictured) updates Rhiannon Clarke on the latest research in this exciting field

A recent breakthrough by US researchers is a milestone on the way to achieving nuclear fusion power, according to a York University expert. But she warns that there is still a long way to go before the revolutionary scientific technique can be harnessed as a source of energy.

Fusion is created by smashing two atomic nuclei together, creating one heavier nucleus. During the process a large amount of energy is created.

Unlike nuclear fission – the process currently used to create nuclear power – fusion promises a safe, clean form of energy if the process can be recreated on a large scale.

And now Nuclear Ignition Facility researchers (NIF) at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California have achieved a fusion experiment that created more energy than they put into it.

Limitless fuel

They used powerful lasers to compress a ball-bearing sized pellet of two types of hydrogen – deuterium and tritium – together. Particles produced from the fusion reaction heated the fuel further, enabling more fusion reactions to happen.

“The breakthrough is a step change in the physics we have been able to observe,” said Dr Kate Lancaster of York Plasma Institute. “The experiment at NIF shows that the energy produced through nuclear fusion reactions is greater than the energy absorbed in the fuel.

“Fusion would be a secure, long-term and relatively clean energy source for the future. The fuel is virtually limitless and found in seawater and the earth’s crust. Fusion doesn’t produce long-lived radioactive waste – any waste produced will be recyclable within 100 years. It does not produce CO2 emissions. And it is inherently safe given the tiny amount of fuel present in the reactor.”

But Lancaster added that scientists are still some way from achieving a breakeven in their fusion experiments because of the inefficient steps needed to get the energy into the process. She estimated that commercial energy from fusion would not be achieved until the latter half of the century.

“We need to achieve a much greater energy output from the fuel than has been reported in this work,” said Lancaster. “To build a power station using this technique will also require more efficient lasers to be built.”


The York Plasma Institute is a leading department for fusion research and training. Lancaster identifies opportunities to commercialise its expertise.

Last week a 13-year-old schoolboy from Penwortham, near Preston, became the youngest person in the world to create a nuclear fusion reactor. Jamie Edwards began building the reactor in a science lab at his school in October and smashed two atoms of hydrogen together last Wednesday.


The Big Issue in the North: Do you think power from nuclear fusion will eventually be achieved and, if so, roughly when?

Dr Kate Lancaster: Inertial confinement fusion is making great progress and the achievements at NIF should be celebrated. There is also another way of achieving fusion called Magnetic Confinement Fusion. This is essentially a doughnut-shaped magnetic bottle that holds together the super-heated fusion fuel. This method is certainly further ahead and better funded.

Much groundbreaking science has been done using a machine called JET, based in the UK at Culham. The next-step machine called ITER, which will be able to achieve break-even and energy gain, is currently being built in the south of France. ITER is an international project consisting of many nations’ resource and expertise. Experiments are expected to commence in the early part of the next decade.

Beyond NIF and ITER, next step projects like LIFE (inertial fusion) and DEMO (magnetic fusion) will demonstrate delivering energy to the grid, with construction beginning around 2030-40. We should be able to achieve commercial power from fusion by the latter half of this century. All of this depends on the global financial and political landscape of course!

Is it likely to be achieved using inertial confinement or magnetic confinement?

Both methods have potential for success. Given the importance of fusion it is essential to investigate more than one route. Funding is also a key factor in the success of a project!

What benefits for society does nuclear fusion hold?

Fusion would be a secure, long-term and relatively clean energy source for the future. The fuel is virtually limitless and found in seawater and the earth’s crust. Fusion doesn’t produce long-lived radioactive waste – any waste produced will be recyclable within 100 years. It does not produce CO2 emissions, one of the gasses implicated in global warming. Finally, it is inherently safe given the tiny amount of fuel present in the reactor.

Given concerns over the current nuclear industry, will it be a challenge to persuade the public of those benefits?

Fusion has many advantages over the conventional fission power stations we have now, as detailed in the benefits above. In my experience of talking to the public about fusion, once the benefits have been described people are incredibly supportive. We need to keep talking about fusion to the general public, politicians and other decision makers to ensure public support keeps growing.

What are the potential downsides?

There are no real downsides to fusion if it is made to work. The downside would be if we do not give sufficient finance to fusion to ensure it is delivered in a timely way.

What are York University’s research and commercialisation strengths in this area?

The York Plasma Institute at the University of York is one of the leading departments in the UK for fusion research, especially in Magnetic Confinement Fusion. We also have strong links with NIF for Inertial Fusion, and the co-ordinator of the UK inertial fusion energy network funded by the EPSRC sits at York – me.

The York Plasma Institute is also a leader in the training of students and we host the EPSRC-funded Centre for Doctoral Training in the Science and Technology of Fusion Energy. This training programme is the result of a collaboration between five of the UK’s top universities – York, Durham, Liverpool, Manchester and Oxford. This is currently the only UK doctoral training centre for fusion that exists.

In terms of commercialisation the path to fusion energy is long, but along the way technologies are developed that can be capitalised on in the near term. There are also many opportunities for businesses to win contracts from the large-scale projects being constructed, such as ITER. The York Plasma Institute employs an Industry officer – me – to identify opportunities for commercialisation and help UK plc to benefit from fusion.

Is there sufficient backing for UK scientists working on nuclear fusion?

There is sufficient backing in the UK to be competitive and influential on the global stage. Fusion progress is slow globally because no single country will invest the amount of money required – 15 billion euros for ITER, for example – to build bigger machines. Therefore we have to work in a co-ordinated manner with other countries, which increases the delivery time of such projects.

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