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Plasma physics

Smaller fusion reactors could deliver big gains

16 Feb 2015 Michael Banks
Hot topic: size may not be everything in tokamak design

Researchers from the UK firm Tokamak Energy say that future fusion reactors could be made much smaller than previously envisaged – yet still deliver the same energy output. That claim is based on calculations showing that the fusion power gain – a measure of the ratio of the power from a fusion reactor to the power required to maintain the plasma in steady state – does not depend strongly on the size of the reactor. The company’s finding goes against conventional thinking, which says that a large power output is only possible by building bigger fusion reactors.

The largest fusion reactor currently under construction is the €16bn ITER facility in Cadarache, France. This will weigh about 23,000 tonnes when completed in the coming decade and consist of a deuterium–tritium plasma held in a 60 m-tall, doughnut-shaped “tokamak”. ITER aims to produce a fusion power gain (Q) of 10, meaning that, in theory, the reactor will emit 10 times the power it expends by producing 500 MW from 50 MW of input power. While ITER has a “major” plasma radius of 6.21 m, it is thought that an actual future fusion power plant delivering power to the grid would need a 9 m radius to generate 1 GW.

Low power brings high performance

The new study, led by Alan Costley from Tokamak Energy, which builds compact tokamaks, shows that smaller, lower-power, and therefore lower-cost reactors could still deliver a value of Q similar to ITER. The work focused on a key parameter in determining plasma performance called the plasma “beta”, which is the ratio of the plasma pressure to the magnetic pressure. By using scaling expressions consistent with existing experiments, the researchers show that the power needed for high fusion performance can be three or four times lower than previously thought.

Combined with the finding on the size-dependence of Q, these results imply the possibility of building lower-power, smaller and cheaper pilot plants and reactors. “The consequence of beta-independent scaling is that tokamaks could be much smaller, but still have a high power gain,” David Kingham, Tokamak Energy chief executive, told Physics World.

The researchers propose that a reactor with a radius of just 1.35 m would be able to generate 180 MW, with a Q of 5. This would result in a reactor just 1/20th of the size of ITER. “Although there are still engineering challenges to overcome, this result is underpinned by good science,” says Kingham. “We hope that this work will attract further investment in fusion energy.”

Many challenges remain

Howard Wilson, director of the York Plasma Institute at the University of York in the UK, points out, however, that the result relies on being able to achieve a very high magnetic field. “We have long been aware that a high magnetic field enables compact fusion devices – the breakthrough would be in discovering how to create such high magnetic fields in the tokamak,” he says. “A compact fusion device may indeed be possible, provided one can achieve high confinement of the fuel, demonstrate efficient current drive in the plasma, exhaust the heat and particles effectively without damaging material surfaces, and create the necessary high magnetic fields.”

The work by Tokamak Energy follows an announcement late last year that the US firm Lockheed Martin plans to build a “truck-sized” compact fusion reactor by 2019 that would be capable of delivering 100 MW. However, the latest results from Tokamak Energy might not be such bad news for ITER. Kingham adds that his firm’s work means that, in principle, ITER is actually being built much larger than necessary – and so should outperform its Q target of 10.

The research is published in Nuclear Fusion.

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