Most of the methods we currently use to produce energy come with significant drawbacks such as pollution or limited availability. In theory, the reliable force of fusion could change all that. By harnessing the power of the sun, we can safely produce more energy than ever before. The problem, however, is that fusion power generation is not yet operational. A team from South Korea has made a major breakthrough – the Korean tokamak superconducting advanced research apparatus (KSTAR) recently ran for 20 seconds. That may not sound impressive, however Doubles the previous record.
The Sun and other stars produce energy through nuclear fusion – the process of attaching to two hydrogen atoms (and later heavier atoms) produces tremendous energy, and the by-products are completely safe, unlike nuclear fission and combustion residues. However, fusion occurs only at extremely high temperatures and pressures. It’s not a self-sustaining chain reaction like fission.
KSTAR is one of the most advanced tokamak reactors in the world. These devices use strong magnetic fields to form an extremely heated torus (ring) plasma. Currently, our ability to maintain artificial fusion reactions in this way is very limited. The best experimental reactors like KSTAR can only keep the highly heated plasma active for a few seconds. However, the number of seconds is increasing finally.
KSTAR recently maintained fusion plasma at 180 million degrees Fahrenheit for 20 seconds. The previous record for this device was only eight seconds in 2019, and the world record before this trial was a mere 10 seconds at 100 million degrees or higher. The longer the plasma remains active in the reactor, the more likely the atoms are to undergo fusion and produce usable amounts of energy. That’s the goal, but current fusion reactors like KSTAR use more energy than they produce. The record holder in this arena is the Joint European Phase (JET), which can produce 16 megawatts of power from 24 megawatts of input power.
The team says improving ITB performance has been key to this latest improvement. ITB reduces the movement of ions within the plasma, resulting in improved plasma confinement and stability. Thus, the KSTAR reactor broke the previous record.
We are still far from making fusion a vital source of energy. For now, the KSTAR team hopes to continue improving the stability of its reactor, eventually expanding to 300 seconds of continuous operation by 2025.