Skip to main content
Move the World.
nuclear fusion exhaust problem

Lead Image Courtesy of UKAEA

The U.K. Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) has announced the promising first results of an experiment designed to overcome a major hurdle to harnessing the power of nuclear fusion.

"We built MAST Upgrade to solve the exhaust problem for compact fusion power plants," lead scientist Andrew Kirk said in a press release, "and the signs are that we've succeeded."

The challenge: Nuclear fusion happens when two hydrogen atoms merge into one, releasing a tremendous amount of energy.

This is the same process that powers the sun, and it's the Holy Grail of clean energy here on Earth — it doesn't produce any carbon emissions or long-lasting radioactive waste, and it isn't beholden to environmental conditions, like wind and solar power.

The problem is that nuclear fusion can only happen under intense heat and pressure.

That means we need fusion reactors to be able to not only produce those conditions, but also withstand them — if we're constantly replacing parts, the whole process becomes financially unviable.

MAST Upgrade: Figuring out how to keep all the excess heat produced during nuclear fusion from damaging parts has become known as the "exhaust problem."

In October, UKAEA researchers set out to solve it with MAST Upgrade, a nuclear fusion experiment featuring a device called the Super-X divertor.

The hope was that the device would be able to reduce the excess heat from the fusion process tenfold, cooling it enough that the rest of the exhaust system would be able to withstand it.

The update: They've now announced the first results of the MAST Upgrade tests — and the diverter did exactly what they'd hoped.

"Super-X reduces the heat on the exhaust system from a blowtorch level down to more like you'd find in a car engine," Kirk said. "This could mean it would only have to be replaced once during the lifetime of a power plant."

The next STEP: The success of the Super-X divertor puts the UKAEA one step closer to its longer-term goal: the creation of a prototype nuclear fusion power plant.

The current plan is to begin construction on the facility, the Spherical Tokamak for Energy Production (STEP), in 2030 and have it up and running about 10 years later.

We'd love to hear from you! If you have a comment about this article or if you have a tip for a future Freethink story, please email us at [email protected].

Up Next

Nuclear Fusion
Nuclear Fusion Gets Closer to Reality With This New Reactor
nuclear fusion
Nuclear Fusion
Nuclear Fusion Gets Closer to Reality With This New Reactor
Nuclear fusion just took a step forward thanks to a new, compact reactor from MIT.

Nuclear fusion just took a step forward thanks to a new, compact reactor from MIT.

The Future Explored
Fusion-Powered Spaceships Could Take Us Into Deep Space
fusion powered spaceships
The Future Explored
Fusion-Powered Spaceships Could Take Us Into Deep Space
Fusion could make frequent trips into deep space possible.
Clean Energy
Open-Sourcing the Blueprints for a Nuclear Power Plant
nuclear power plant
Clean Energy
Open-Sourcing the Blueprints for a Nuclear Power Plant
The Energy Impact Center has open-sourced nuclear power plant blueprints in an attempt to encourage the adoption of eco-friendly nuclear energy.

The Energy Impact Center has open-sourced nuclear power plant blueprints in an attempt to encourage the adoption of eco-friendly nuclear energy.

Clean Energy
Mini Nuclear Reactors Take Big Step Forward in the US
Small Modular Reactors
Clean Energy
Mini Nuclear Reactors Take Big Step Forward in the US
NuScale Power’s small modular reactors generate less energy than full-sized nuclear reactors, but they might also be cheaper and safer.

NuScale Power’s small modular reactors generate less energy than full-sized nuclear reactors, but they might also be cheaper and safer.

Clean Energy
New Nuclear Fuel Could Replace Uranium in Reactors
nuclear fuel
Clean Energy
New Nuclear Fuel Could Replace Uranium in Reactors
Nuclear power could become more accessible thanks to a new nuclear fuel called ANEEL that combines thorium with uranium.

Nuclear power could become more accessible thanks to a new nuclear fuel called ANEEL that combines thorium with uranium.

Challengers
Powering the World With Nuclear
Powering the World With Nuclear
Watch Now
Challengers
Powering the World With Nuclear
Transatomic believes they've figured out a safe, scalable, cost-effective way to power the world with nuclear.
Watch Now

Transatomic is designing a nuclear reactor that can produce a lot more electricity than a conventional reactor, while creating a lot less nuclear waste. But they’ll need to take on a deeply entrenched industry and convince a cautious public that they can safely harness the most powerful energy in the world.

Technology
We Bought an NFT of This Article About NFTs
nft
Technology
We Bought an NFT of This Article About NFTs
Here's why this might be the future of the Internet.
By Matt Hartman

Here's why this might be the future of the Internet.

Inventions
Finally! A Smart Toilet Offers Fecal Testing for the Masses
fecal testing
Inventions
Finally! A Smart Toilet Offers Fecal Testing for the Masses
Fecal testing can reveal a surprising amount of medical data. Israeli startup OutSense wants to do so from your home.

Fecal testing can reveal a surprising amount of medical data. Israeli startup OutSense wants to do so from your home.