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Sunday, July 3, 2022

Oxford nuclear fusion revolution: Cherwell meets the scientists

Humza Jilani reports.

Oxfordshire is the epicenter of a global effort to harness the power of nuclear fusion, the process which powers the Sun, to greatly slash greenhouse gas emissions. And the University of Oxford is a leading player in that quest, with students and faculty partnering with and founding key players in seeking to develop a nuclear fusion reactor that can generate more energy than it consumes. 

The Oxford community is the home of two startups, First Light Fusion and Tokamak Energy, developing pathways to commercially viable fusion energy. University of Oxford alumni are well-represented among their leadership teams. Both have raised millions of dollars from public and private investors, indicating a growing appetite worldwide for new approaches to solving the climate crisis. 

Earlier this month, First Light Fusion, which spun out of the University of Oxford, successfully combined atomic nuclei through a novel approach called “projectile fusion.” A few months before, the Joint European Torus (JET) laboratory, which is located in Oxfordshire and is Europe’s most powerful fusion experiment, produced 59 megajoules of energy over five seconds, smashing its own world record for the amount of energy it can extract by squeezing together two forms of hydrogen. 

As an energy source, nuclear fusion produces no carbon emissions and a very small amount of fuel could theoretically power a house for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Fusion, however, remains prohibitively expensive and currently consumes more energy than it produces, making it commercially unviable for the near-term. Researchers, at Oxford and elsewhere, hope to crack the code to make it viable within the next ten to thirty years. 

Cherwell spoke with a representative from the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA), a government fusion research organisation, who shared details about the almost century-long relationship between the University of Oxford and nuclear fusion research. 

Chris D. Warrick, the student placement and outreach manager at UKAEA, shared that the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy, the United Kingdom’s national laboratory for fusion research, has very strong links to the University and its students. Each year, Culham places between 1 and 5 DPhil students from Oxford, as well as those from other universities, into its research organization. 

“Our links [with the University of Oxford] are very strong, as are our links all over the U.K. and all over the world,” Warrick told Cherwell

The University’s involvement in cutting-edge fusion research dates back to the late 1930s, when the Clarendon Laboratory housed a fusion research team. It trained generations of trailblazing fusion researchers, including Professor Peter Thonenmann, who received his DPhil from Oxford in 1946 and went on to build one of the world’s earliest nuclear fusion reactors called the Zero-Energy Toroidal Assembly (ZETA). 

In 1965, the Culham Centre was founded in Oxfordshire. The location was chosen in part due to the decades-long involvement of Oxford researchers in fusion work, and it continues to collaborate closely with students and faculty from the University. The existence of the Harwell Science and Innovation Campus, which housed the Atomic Energy Research Establishment between the 1940s and 1990s, just south of Didcot also contributed to the decision to house the Culham Centre in Oxfordshire. 

The Culham Centre collaborates closely with a variety of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics departments at the University of Oxford. They regularly draw on research into theories of plasmas from the Department of Physics. The Materials department assists Culham with designing approaches to creating a device that can reach temperatures that far exceed that of the surface of the Sun, and designing the reactor so that it can remain viable for up to 40 or 50 years, which is what they hope to one day achieve. Culham also works closely with the Mathematical Institute, the Engineering Science Department, and the Robotics Institute. 


“Fusion research has long defied geopolitics, and Oxford’s role as a community of scholars from across the globe has facilitated collaboration throughout the Cold War and into the present day,” Warrick told Cherwell

Image: EUROfusion / CC BY 4.0

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