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Wednesday, 12 May, 1999, 13:12 GMT 14:12 UK
The Oxford sunseekers
What is the future for Jet?
By Richard Hollingham of BBC Science

It looks like a giant metal doughnut and it promises a huge amount of jam - in this case, an almost limitless supply of energy. But it will not be tomorrow, and probably not for many years to come.

Nonetheless, the scientists and engineers who run the fusion reactor at the Jet Research Institute near Oxford, UK, are confident this machine will lead them to a glorious prize.

With the exception of Japan and maybe the European Union, the Americans are making it fairly clear that they're not going to fund big science like this

Malcolm Grimshaw
For 25 years, they have been trying to harness the energy that powers the stars. In theory, it is very simple. Within the stainless steel doughnut, two types of hydrogen - deuterium and tritium - are forced together to release a fantastic amount of energy.

In reality, however, it is far more complicated, largely because to make the reaction work, the gases need to be heated to a hundred million degrees Celsius. This is six times hotter than the centre of our Sun.

As a result, the Jet reactor consumes more energy than it gives back. It cannot even power a light bulb.

Economic question

Scientists at the European-funded Jet project are trying new ways of achieving nuclear fusion. But the director, Professor Martin Keilhacker, admits that even with a budget of 400m a year they have a long way to go before the process becomes a reality.

Plasma BBC
Magnetic fields hold the fusion reaction away from the walls
"So far we have developed the physics basis for a fusion reactor," he says.

"Now, the main problems are to develop the materials which can withstand the heat load and then the final question is whether such a reactor will be economical. But I think there is a 50% chance that this will be the case.

"I'm of the strong opinion that, because of the advantages of fusion, it is worthwhile to spend the amount of money that is presently being spent on fusion research. "

Energy alternatives

The Jet project has its roots in the oil crisis of the early 1970s. In 1973 alone, the world price of oil quadrupled forcing governments to look for alternative energy sources.

Worker BBC
Fusion produces less radioactivity than fission
At the end of the 20th Century, the growing threat posed by climate change has made the search for a future free from fossil fuels evermore pressing.

"I think the big question is global warming; I think that's really going to make an enormous difference to energy policy, " says Malcolm Grimshaw, an energy expert at Imperial College, London.

"And if many scientists feel global warming is going to be extremely serious then the need for non-fossil forms of energy is going to increase enormously."

Although it is a nuclear reaction, fusion is a great deal safer than the more conventional nuclear fission used in power stations all over the world.

Safer technology

A fusion reactor can be shut down instantly, making a disaster like Chernobyl impossible.

However, it still produces radiation so any maintenance has to be carried out by remote-controlled robots.

Jet's Dr Alan Rolfe says special technology has been developed to do this.

Robots BBC
Robots have been developed to work inside the reactor
"It's been designed specifically for our problems at Jet, where we need to be able to do work as if we're doing it manually and so this device may look a bit scary but it's got a lot of capability to replicate what a human can do."

Walking around the site, the whole operation certainly appears extremely elaborate but a successful fusion process is looking more and more remote.

Big science

Latest estimates put the building of a commercial reactor more than 50 years away. And Malcolm Grimshaw says the long-term signs do not look good.

"With the exception of Japan and maybe the European Union, the Americans are making it fairly clear that they're not going to fund big science like this.

Martin Keilhacker BBC
Martin Keilhacker: Jet worth the investment
"The other main centre of research has been Russia, but is out of money at the present."

The Jet project is being re-structured later this year. There are already rumours that it could be shutdown unless adequate funding is found.

Many see 400m a year as a big investment for a technology that may never actually work. Malcolm Grimshaw believes the fusion scientists will have to fight for their future.

"Is it a more sensible use of resources to focus on renewables, which we know are improving, or nuclear fusion which its proponents say is 40 or 50 years into the future?"

Nuclei BBC
When the nuclei come together, they release energy

Richard Hollingham
reports from the Jet Research Institute in Oxfordshire
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