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Researchers to unlock potential of fusion as abundant source of clean energy

Posted on 20 June 2023

Researchers are working on a new £12 million research project to speed up the development of fusion as a safe, clean and abundant source of energy.

The research team will explore material and plasma science

Fusion has the potential to provide a near-limitless source of low carbon energy by copying the processes that powers the sun and stars where atoms are fused to release energy, creating nearly four million times more energy for every kilogram of fuel than burning coal, oil or gas.

Members of the University of York’s York Plasma Institute will join forces with researchers at Imperial College London, University of Oxford, and industrial partners First Light Fusion and Machine Discovery on the project. 

The research team will explore material and plasma science in order to address the question of how the conditions of intense heat and pressure needed for fusion can be achieved in order to produce a commercially viable and clean energy source for the future. 

Specific phenomena

The work of the researchers will involve the study of matter, heat and radiation flow at extreme temperature, pressure and density, and examining how these flows change at interfaces between materials.

Dr Andrew Higginbotham, Professor Chris Ridgers and Professor Nigel Woolsey from the School of Physics, Engineering and Technology at the University of York will investigate specific phenomena relating to material response, heat transport and hydrodynamics.

Dr Higginbotham said: “By recreating extreme conditions that range from solid materials through warm dense matter to hot plasma states we can test and further our fundamental understanding of the behaviour of matter.” 

New measurements

As part of the partnership, researchers from across the three universities and two companies will work together to study the behaviour of materials used by First Light Fusion in its experiments. 

Professor Ridgers said: “There are enormous opportunities to extend our theoretical understanding of transport in these exotic states of matter, we’ve had great success so far and we need new measurements to push our understanding forward.”

Nuclear fusion occurs by combining nuclei of two atoms to create a different element. For example, fusion occurs in the Sun by combining hydrogen atoms to create helium, and this releases a huge amount of spare energy.

Demanding conditions

Fusion as a power source has the potential to be transformational as a safe, clean, and abundant source of energy. Most approaches aim to fuse deuterium and tritium, heavy isotopes of hydrogen, to produce a helium and a neutron, but the conditions required to achieve this are demanding and need intense heat and pressure. 

These conditions are so difficult to achieve, that we have generated only limited amounts of energy so far. 

Predictive modelling

Professor Woolsey said: “The understanding of matter under these extreme conditions is common to all approaches to inertial fusion as well as planetary and stellar systems. This field of work will benefit from our new measurements and theory and this will enhance our predictive modelling. 

“The aim is to help accelerate the development of inertial fusion and increase our knowledge of plasmas found in exoplanets and the stars.” 

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About this research

The project is funded by First Light Fusion, and UK Research and Innovation’s Prosperity Partnership scheme. 

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