April 25, 2024
Technology

UK-Canadian partnership to develop hydrogen isotope management for nuclear fusion | Technology


The UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) and Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL) have partnered on the development of technologies for the management of a hydrogen isotope for nuclear fusion.

Nuclear fusion is the process found in stars where pairs of atoms are heated and forced together to make one heavier atom and then releasing energy – the opposite to nuclear fission which splits atoms apart.

Under the collaboration framework agreement, the partnership will focus on tritium management within the fusion cycle to safely remove, process and reinject fuel into plasma continuously.

Tritium is a hydrogen atom that has two neutrons in the nucleus and one proton. Produced natural in the upper atmosphere when cosmic rays hit nitrogen molecules, it is also a by-product of nuclear reactors and nuclear weapon explosions.

Management of the isotope is an essential part of the fusion fuel cycle. Tritium needs to be separated from other hydrogen isotopes in the exhaust gas so it can be recycled and reused as a fusion fuel.

The first project under the collaboration will analyse samples of candidate materials for isotope separation at both CNL’s Chalk River, Ontario, facilities and the UKAEA’s facilities in Culham, Oxfordshire.

The agreement comes after the UK and Canadian governments signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on Wednesday (February 14) to cooperate on fusion energy.

“Fusion energy promises to be a safe, low-carbon and sustainable part of the world’s future energy supply,” said Stephen Wheeler, Executive Director of the UKAEA.

Wheeler said tritium was a “key fuel” for fusion energy and the development of technologies for its handling and reprocessing was “vital” for the delivery of the clean energy source.

Ian Castillo, Head of Hydrogen and Tritium Technologies at CNL, said the organisation had “extensive expertise” in the safe operation of facilities, storage and management of tritium.

The UK-Canadian developments follow the 2022 breakthrough that saw US scientists produce energy from nuclear fusion in a laboratory for the “first time.”

Read more: Hydrogen’s role in US nuclear fusion breakthrough

Despite the experiment only delivery 3.15MJ of fusion energy output, it is hoped the development could pave the way to see nuclear fusion become a key pathway to future energy.

At the forefront: The renewed role of nuclear power

84 years on from the discovery of nuclear fission – splitting atoms to release energy – the nuclear industry in 2022 seemingly entered a new realm of energy production. December saw a group of US scientists perform a breakthrough in nuclear fusion – combining atoms to release energy – where hydrogen played a central role.

The experiment at the National Ignition Facility (NIF) at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) in California, US, saw a series of increasingly powerful laser systems create temperatures and pressures such as those in the core of stars to kickstart a fusion reaction, which forced hydrogen atoms together and released energy.

Despite only delivering 3.15MJ of energy output, it is hoped the experiment could pave the way for nuclear fusion to become a key part of our energy system. Elina Teplinsky, Partner and Nuclear Energy and Hydrogen Expert at Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman, as well as the co-leader in the Nuclear Hydrogen Initiative (NHI) told H2 View that the development came as a turning point in demonstrating the commercial viability of fusion.

Teplinsky added that although fusion is not yet commercially available today, it could play a role in future hydrogen production, saying, “Nuclear fusion could also be paired with hydrogen production in the future. We have had fusion companies participating in NHI meetings, and that’s an area that will be really interesting to explore as fusion moves closer to commercial scale demonstrations…

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