UK Atomic Energy Authority to start operating its spherical tokamak next year
UKAEA will start operating its new spherical tokamak called MAST-U in 2020, opening an exciting new chapter in the drive towards practical fusion energy.
The spherical tokamak is a promising type of compact fusion machine, which has been under development since the 1980s.
The STEP programme will develop and identify solutions to the challenges of delivering fusion energy, benefiting from UKAEA’s breadth of expertise and its research facilities – RACE, MRF, H3AT and FTF – to deliver an integrated concept design.
The objectives of STEP include the delivery of predictable net electricity greater than 100MW and innovate to exploit fusion energy beyond electricity production, ensure tritium self-sufficiency
The UK government has announced £20 million for the first year, launching STEP as a collaborative programme that combines the strengths of UKAEA with industry, universities and other organisations.
STEP offers numerous procurement opportunities, set out in the STEP Programme Procurement Plan Schedule. This is published every quarter and sets out procurement opportunities as well as details of the responsible procurement officer who can be contacted for more information. Note that tender dates are subject to change.
Nuclear fusion is one of the most promising options for generating large amounts of carbon-free energy in the future.
The world needs new, cleaner ways to supply our increasing energy demand, as concerns grow over climate change and declining supplies of fossil fuels. Power stations using fusion would have a number of advantages:
No carbon emissions. The only by-products of fusion reactions are small amounts of helium, which is an inert gas that will not add to atmospheric pollution.
Abundant fuels. Deuterium can be extracted from water and tritium is produced from lithium, which is found in the earth’s crust. Fuel supplies will therefore last for millions of years.
Energy efficiency. One kilogram of fusion fuel can provide the same amount of energy as 10 million kilograms of fossil fuel.
No long-lived radioactive waste. Only plant components become radioactive and these will be safe to recycle or dispose of conventionally within 100 years.
Safety. The small amounts of fuel used in fusion devices (about the weight of a postage stamp at any one time) means that a large-scale nuclear accident is not possible.
Reliable power. Fusion power plants should provide a baseload supply of large amounts of electricity, at costs that are estimated to be broadly similar to other energy sources.
Fusion is the process that heats the Sun and all other stars, where atomic nuclei collide together and release energy (in the form of neutrons, see diagram on the right). Fusion scientists and engineers are developing the technology to use this process in tomorrow’s power stations.
To get energy from fusion, gas from a combination of types of hydrogen – deuterium and tritium – is heated to very high temperatures (100 million degrees Celsius). One way to achieve these conditions is a method called ‘magnetic confinement’ – controlling the hot gas (known as a plasma) with strong magnets. The most promising device for this is the ‘tokamak’, a Russian word for a ring-shaped magnetic chamber.