In a bit of a coincidence, last December also saw a tokamak reach a major breakthrough. Scientists at the National Fusion Research Institute (NFRI) in South Korea managed to sustain a high-performance plasma for a mammoth 70 seconds, a new world record. It was widely reported that this was done with a hydrogen plasma.
This might beg the question, why even bother with the stellarator if the tokamak is so much more impressive? The reason is that while the stellarator is more complex, it is easier to maintain, and if it can be improved then it could rival the tokamak in sustaining a plasma.
It’s unclear who is going to win the race to make a working “star in a jar”. Another project underway is the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) in France. This international project is going down the tokamak route, but has had a troubled development time; it was first initiated way back in 1988.
However, they are hopeful of generating their first plasma by 2025. If it all works, this reactor – and the others – will be a precursor of what is to come.
And, well, that could be rather fantastic. Nuclear fusion has the added benefit of generating zero waste products, and a working reactor would theoretically produce more energy than is put in. This would give us an essentially limitless and clean source of energy.
Whether the dream will be realized remains to be seen. But, for nuclear fusion at least, we've had a rather good year. A working “star in a jar” may not be too far away.