The UK government is looking for a site on which to build the world’s first prototype commercial fusion power plant. With the goal of being operational by 2040, the Spherical Tokamak for Energy Production (STEP) will be designed to provide energy and create a hub for fusion energy and associated industries. If you think that all sounds very ambitious, you’re right.
Fusion energy has been the holy grail of scientists and engineers since the 1940s, and about as elusive. In the 1950s, there were predictions that fusion power plants would come on line in 25 years and since then they’ve always been 25 years in the future. The problem is that while a controlled fusion reaction is easy enough to produce in the laboratory, making it into a practical power source has proven extremely difficult.
All nuclear power stations of today operate on the concept of fission, where heavy atoms like uranium and plutonium are split into smaller atoms to release energy. Fusion works in the opposite direction. It’s based on taking isotopes of hydrogen and subjecting them to temperatures 10 times those found in the core of the Sun while compressing them inside a magnetic field, causing them to fuse into a helium atom while releasing much more energy than the fission reaction.
The problem is that, so far, it takes much more energy to start the reaction than it releases. This is unfortunate to say the least, because a practical fusion reactor, even a very inefficient one, would revolutionize civilization.
Instead of polluting fossil fuels, problematic nuclear fission, or intermittent sources like solar and wind, a fusion reactor would run on hydrogen, which is the most abundant element in the universe. It would be an inherently safe source of energy that has zero emissions, produces only low-level nuclear wastes in relatively small quantities, and could be scaled up to not only replace almost every other static source, but would usher in an age of energy abundance that would be difficult to imagine.
Presented as part of the UK government’s new environmental policy, the STEP competition is seeking proposals from communities and regions by the end of March 2021. These proposals would spell out how the applicant community could support such a project in terms of available land; mixture of social, commercial, and technical conditions; water supply; and national grid connections.
At present, STEP is in the concept stage with a £222 million (US$296 million) allocation awarded for design work though the UK Atomic Energy Authority, plus another £184 million (US$248 million) to 2025 for new fusion facilities, infrastructure, and apprenticeships at the Culham Science Centre in Oxfordshire. The concept design is expected to be complete by 2024, followed by a detailed engineering design to be written while the necessary legal permissions and consents are secured by 2032, with the completed plant going online by 2040 – an ambitious plan by the government’s own admission, but a laudable one, too.
“STEP is about moving from research and development to delivery,” says UK Atomic Energy Authority CEO Professor Ian Chapman. “It will prove that fusion is not a far-off dream, but a dawning reality with the UK leading the commercial development of fusion power and positioning itself as a pioneer in sustainable fusion energy.
“To achieve this ambitious goal will require all the ingenuity and application of the UK’s science and engineering industry, and we look forward to working with industrial partners in the years ahead, not just to invest, but also to support the technical evolution of the program.
“We are confident that working together with partners in the UK and around the world will enable the UK to bring a revolutionary technology to market.”
Source: UK Government
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