Posted on 14 April 2009
Research into nuclear fusion has long offered the hope of a greenhouse gas-free source of power. It is now reaching a critical stage with a series of major new developments around the world. Experiments will begin shortly at the recently completed National Ignition Facility (NIF), in the United States, and a ten billion Euro experimental reactor (ITER) is being built in France. NIF should achieve ‘breakeven’ where more fusion energy is output than used to heat material to fusion conditions in around a year’s time.
While there are still significant obstacles to overcome, there is every reason to believe that a commercial nuclear fusion reactor could be up and running in the next 20 or 30 years
Professor Greg Tallents
As interest in the potential offered by nuclear fusion research grows, the Department of Physics at the University of York has become the first in the country to offer a Fusion Energy Masters degree. Recruitment for the course is now underway with the first students starting in October 2009.
Nuclear fusion occurs when light elements such as hydrogen combine to form heavier elements. Fusion reactions generate a large amount of energy but require atomic nuclei to be forced together in a very high temperature environment. The heat and light from the Sun are produced by fusion, but the necessary conditions for a fusion reactor are difficult to reproduce on earth.
Professor Greg Tallents, the course director, said: “Concerns about the impact of existing methods of generating power on the environment and how we will meet the world’s growing energy needs have added new impetus to research into nuclear fusion.
“While there are still significant obstacles to overcome, there is every reason to believe that a commercial nuclear fusion reactor could be up and running in the next 20 or 30 years.
“As momentum builds towards that goal, laboratories working in this field are already struggling to recruit suitably trained scientists and that demand for appropriately skilled people is going to grow.“
The establishment of the new MSc course is a natural development for the Department of Physics which is the only one in the country to have a major interest in the two main concepts that are the focus of nuclear fusion research: magnetic confinement fusion and inertial confinement fusion.
In inertial confinement, fusion occurs at high density using lasers to compress for a short time the hydrogen isotopes deuterium and tritium. In magnetic confinement, magnetic fields confine lower density deuterium and tritium for much longer periods of time. The inherent efficiency of magnetic confinement makes it the approach likely to produce the first commercial fusion reactor, though inertial confinement is likely to be the first to achieve breakeven.
The Department has well established links with the leading laboratories working in the field, which gives it access to world-leading fusion facilities.
The course is expected to appeal to recent physics graduates but individuals from other backgrounds will be considered.