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How much closer are we to viable nuclear fusion energy?

Nuclear physicists Dr Paul Norman and Dr Lee Packer evaluate how far the latest nuclear fusion milestone in the UK has brought us on this new energy roadmap.

There’s been tremendous excitement about recent results from the Joint European Torus (JET) facility in the UK, hinting that the dream of nuclear fusion power is inching closer to reality.

We know that fusion works. It is the process that powers the sun, providing heat and light to the Earth. But for decades it has proved difficult to make the transition from scientific laboratory experiments to sustained power production.

The fundamental aim of fusion is to bring atomic nuclei merging together to create a different, heavier nucleus, releasing energy in the process. This is different to nuclear fission, in which a heavy nucleus such as uranium is split into smaller ones while also releasing energy.

A significant difficulty has been the process of fusing light atoms, isotopes of hydrogen or helium, together. As they are electrically charged, repulsing each other, they resist fusing unless nuclei are moving fast enough to get physically very close to each other, requiring extreme conditions. The sun achieves this at its core thanks to its immense gravitational fields and its huge volume.

One approach used in labs on Earth is inertial confinement, whereby a tiny fusion fuel pellet around one-tenth of a centimetre in diameter is heated and compressed from the outside using laser energy. In recent years, some encouraging progress on this technique has been made. Perhaps most notably was the National Ignition Facility in the US where a 1.3m joules fusion yield was reported last year. While this produced 10 quadrillion watts of power, it only lasted for 100 trillionths of a second.

Another technique, magnetic confinement, has been deployed more broadly in laboratories worldwide, and is thought to be one of the most promising routes to realising fusion power stations in the future. It involves using fusion fuel contained in the form of a hot plasma – a cloud of charged particles – confined by strong magnetic fields. In creating the conditions for fusion reactions to take place, the confinement system needs to keep the fuel at the appropriate temperature and density, and for sufficient time.

Herein lies a significant part of the challenge. The small amount of fusion fuel (typically just a few grams) needs to be heated to huge temperatures, of the order of 10 times hotter than the centre of the sun (150m degrees Celsius). And this needs to happen while maintaining confinement in a magnetic cage to sustain an energy output.

Various machines can be used to try to retain this magnetic confinement of the plasma, but the most successful to date is the so-called tokamak design, which uses a torus (doughnut shape) and complex magnetic fields to confine the plasma, as employed at the JET facility.

Small step or giant leap?

The recent results from JET mark a real stepping stone in the quest for fusion power. The 59m joules of energy in total, produced over a five-second period, gave an average fusion power of around 11m watts. While this is only enough to heat about 60 kettles, it is nevertheless impressive, creating an energy output 2.5 times the previous record set back in 1997 (also at the JET facility, achieving 22m joules).

The success at JET is the culmination in years of planning and a highly experienced team of dedicated scientists and engineers. JET is currently the largest tokamak in the world, and the only device that is able to make use of both deuterium and tritium fuel (both isotopes of hydrogen).

The design of the machine, using copper magnets which heat up rapidly, means that it can only operate with plasma bursts of up to a few seconds. To make the step to longer sustained high-power operations, superconducting magnets will be needed.

Luckily, this is the case at the ITER facility, currently being built in the south of France as part of an international effort involving 35 nations, which is now 80pc complete. The recent JET results have therefore given great confidence in the engineering design and physics performance for the ITER machine. This is also a magnetic confinement device, designed to produce 500m watts of fusion power.

Other important challenges remain, however. These include developing appropriately durable materials that are able to withstand the intense pressure within the machine, handling the huge power exhaust and, most importantly, generating energy that is economically competitive with other forms of energy production.

Achieving notable power outputs and sustaining them for more than very short periods of time has proved to be the major challenge in fusion for decades. Without this ultimately being solved, an eventual fusion powerplant simply cannot be made to function. This is why the JET results represent a significant landmark, albeit just marking a step along the way.

The giant leap will come with scaling up of the current fusion achievements in subsequent fusion systems, such as ITER and then in demonstration power plants beyond this. And this should be within reach in the not too distant future, aiming for operation by the 2050s or possibly slightly earlier.

The future is fusion

There’s a lot at stake. Fusion produces more energy per gram of fuel than any other process that could be achieved on Earth. Some of the main benefits of fusion are that the products of the process are helium and neutrons, particles which make up the atomic nucleus alongside protons. No carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases are released.

The raw fuels are deuterium, which can be found in seawater, and lithium – which is also abundant and found in vast salt flats. The potential fusion energy released from the lithium contained in one laptop battery and a bathtub of water is estimated to be equivalent to around 40 tonnes of coal.

Fusion does produce some radioactivity in the materials comprising the reactor. But this isn’t expected to be anywhere near as long-lived or intense as the radioactive waste produced by nuclear fission, making it potentially a safer and more palatable choice than conventional nuclear power.

Ultimately, Rome wasn’t built in a day. Various other aspects of human ingenuity, such as aviation, have historically taken significant amounts of time to progress to fruition. That means steps along the way which make progress are hugely important and should rightly be celebrated.

Fusion is creeping inexorably forward and we are getting closer and closer to achieving that once distant dream of commercial fusion power. One day, it will provide a near limitless supply of low-carbon power for many future generations to come. While it is not quite there yet, it is coming.

The Conversation

By Dr Paul Norman and Dr Lee Packer

Dr Paul Norman is a senior lecturer in nuclear physics at University of Birmingham where he studies nuclear engineering and reactor physics. Dr Lee Packer leads the Applied Radiation Physics group at Culham Centre for Fusion Energy, the UK’s national fusion laboratory.

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European Startup Ecosystems Awash With Gulf Investment – Here Are Some Of The Top Investors

European Startup Ecosystem Getting Flooded With Gulf Investments

The Voice Of EU | In recent years, European entrepreneurs seeking capital infusion have widened their horizons beyond the traditional American investors, increasingly turning their gaze towards the lucrative investment landscape of the Gulf region. With substantial capital reservoirs nestled within sovereign wealth funds and corporate venture capital entities, Gulf nations have emerged as compelling investors for European startups and scaleups.

According to comprehensive data from Dealroom, the influx of investment from Gulf countries into European startups soared to a staggering $3 billion in 2023, marking a remarkable 5x surge from the $627 million recorded in 2018.

This substantial injection of capital, accounting for approximately 5% of the total funding raised in the region, underscores the growing prominence of Gulf investors in European markets.

Particularly noteworthy is the significant support extended to growth-stage companies, with over two-thirds of Gulf investments in 2023 being directed towards funding rounds exceeding $100 million. This influx of capital provides a welcome boost to European companies grappling with the challenge of securing well-capitalized investors locally.

Delving deeper into the landscape, Sifted has identified the most active Gulf investors in European startups over the past two years.

Leading the pack is Aramco Ventures, headquartered in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. Bolstered by a substantial commitment, Aramco Ventures boasts a $1.5 billion sustainability fund, alongside an additional $4 billion allocated to its venture capital arm, positioning it as a formidable player with a total investment capacity of $7 billion by 2027. With a notable presence in 17 funding rounds, Aramco Ventures has strategically invested in ventures such as Carbon Clean Solutions and ANYbotics, aligning with its focus on businesses that offer strategic value.

Following closely is Mubadala Capital, headquartered in Abu Dhabi, UAE, with an impressive tally of 13 investments in European startups over the past two years. Backed by the sovereign wealth fund Mubadala Investment Company, Mubadala Capital’s diverse investment portfolio spans private equity, venture capital, and alternative solutions. Notable investments include Klarna, TIER, and Juni, reflecting its global investment strategy across various sectors.

Ventura Capital, based in Dubai, UAE, secured its position as a key player with nine investments in European startups. With a presence in Dubai, London, and Tokyo, Ventura Capital boasts an international network of limited partners and a sector-agnostic investment approach, contributing to its noteworthy investments in companies such as Coursera and Spotify.

Qatar Investment Authority, headquartered in Doha, Qatar, has made significant inroads into the European startup ecosystem with six notable investments. As the sovereign wealth fund of Qatar, QIA’s diversified portfolio spans private and public equity, infrastructure, and real estate, with strategic investments in tech startups across healthcare, consumer, and industrial sectors.

MetaVision Dubai, a newcomer to the scene, has swiftly garnered attention with six investments in European startups. Focusing on seed to Series A startups in the metaverse and Web3 space, MetaVision raised an undisclosed fund in 2022, affirming its commitment to emerging technologies and innovative ventures.

Investcorp, headquartered in Manama, Bahrain, has solidified its presence with six investments in European startups. With a focus on mid-sized B2B businesses, Investcorp’s diverse investment strategies encompass private equity, real estate, infrastructure, and credit management, contributing to its notable investments in companies such as Terra Quantum and TruKKer.

Chimera Capital, based in Abu Dhabi, UAE, rounds off the list with four strategic investments in European startups. As part of a prominent business conglomerate, Chimera Capital leverages its global reach and sector-agnostic approach to drive investments in ventures such as CMR Surgical and Neat Burger.

In conclusion, the burgeoning influx of capital from Gulf investors into European startups underscores the region’s growing appeal as a vibrant hub for innovation and entrepreneurship. With key players such as Aramco Ventures, Mubadala Capital, and Ventura Capital leading the charge, European startups are poised to benefit from the strategic investments and partnerships forged with Gulf investors, propelling them towards sustained growth and success in the global market landscape.

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China Reveals Lunar Mission: Sending ‘Taikonauts’ To The Moon From 2030 Onwards

China Reveals Lunar Mission

The Voice Of EU | In a bold stride towards lunar exploration, the Chinese Space Agency has unveiled its ambitious plans for a moon landing set to unfold in the 2030s. While exact timelines remain uncertain, this endeavor signals a potential resurgence of the historic space race reminiscent of the 1960s rivalry between the United States and the USSR.

China’s recent strides in lunar exploration include the deployment of three devices on the moon’s surface, coupled with the successful launch of the Queqiao-2 satellite. This satellite serves as a crucial communication link, bolstering connectivity between Earth and forthcoming missions to the moon’s far side and south pole.

Unlike the secretive approach of the Soviet Union in the past, China’s strategy leans towards transparency, albeit with a hint of mystery surrounding the finer details. Recent revelations showcase the naming and models of lunar spacecraft, steeped in cultural significance. The Mengzhou, translating to “dream ship,” will ferry three astronauts to and from the moon, while the Lanyue, meaning “embrace the moon,” will descend to the lunar surface.

Drawing inspiration from both Russian and American precedents, China’s lunar endeavor presents a novel approach. Unlike its predecessors, China will employ separate launches for the manned module and lunar lander due to the absence of colossal space shuttles. This modular approach bears semblance to SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, reflecting a contemporary adaptation of past achievements.

Upon reaching lunar orbit, astronauts, known as “taikonauts” in Chinese, will rendezvous with the lunar lander, reminiscent of the Apollo program’s maneuvers. However, distinct engineering choices mark China’s departure from traditional lunar landing methods.

The Chinese lunar lander, while reminiscent of the Apollo Lunar Module, introduces novel features such as a single set of engines and potential reusability and advance technology. Unlike past missions where lunar modules were discarded, China’s design hints at the possibility of refueling and reuse, opening avenues for sustained lunar exploration.

China Reveals Lunar Mission: Sending 'Taikonauts' To The Moon From 2030 Onwards
A re-creation of the two Chinese spacecraft that will put ‘taikonauts’ on the moon.CSM

Despite these advancements, experts have flagged potential weaknesses, particularly regarding engine protection during landing. Nevertheless, China’s lunar aspirations remain steadfast, with plans for extensive testing and site selection underway.

Beyond planting flags and collecting rocks, China envisions establishing a permanent lunar base, the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS), ushering in a new era of international collaboration in space exploration.

While the Artemis agreements spearheaded by NASA have garnered global support, China’s lunar ambitions stand as a formidable contender in shaping the future of space exploration. In conclusion, China’s unveiling of its lunar ambitions not only marks a significant milestone in space exploration but also sets the stage for a new chapter in the ongoing saga of humanity’s quest for the cosmos. As nations vie for supremacy in space, collaboration and innovation emerge as the cornerstones of future lunar endeavors.

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Aviation and Telecom Industries Reach Compromise on 5G Deployment

The Voice Of EU | In a significant development, AT&T and Verizon, the two largest mobile network operators in the United States, have agreed to delay the deployment of 5G services following requests from the aviation industry and the Biden administration. This decision marks a crucial compromise in the long-standing dispute between the two industries, which had raised concerns over the potential interference of 5G with flight signals.
The aviation industry, led by United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby, had been vocal about the risks of 5G deployment, citing concerns over the safety of flight operations. Kirby had urged AT&T and Verizon to delay their plans, warning that proceeding with the deployment would be a “catastrophic failure of government.” The US Senate Commerce Committee hearing on the issue further highlighted the need for a solution.
In response, US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) head Steve Dickson sent a letter to the mobile networks, requesting a two-week delay to reassess the potential risks. Initially, AT&T and Verizon were hesitant, citing the aviation industry’s two-year preparation window. However, they eventually agreed to the short delay, pushing the deployment to January 19.
The crux of the issue lies in the potential interference between 5G signals and flight equipment, particularly radar altimeters. The C-Band spectrum used by 5G networks is close to the frequencies employed by these critical safety devices. The FAA requires accurate and reliable radar altimeters to ensure safe flight operations.

Airlines in the US have been at loggerheads with mobile networks over the deployment of 5G and its potential impact on flight safety.

Despite the concerns, both the FAA and the telecoms industry agree that 5G mobile networks and airline travel can coexist safely. In fact, they already do in nearly 40 countries where US airlines operate regularly. The key lies in reducing power levels around airports and fostering cross-industry collaboration prior to deployment.
The FAA has been working to find a solution in the United States, and the additional two-week delay will allow for further assessment and preparation. AT&T and Verizon have also agreed to not operate 5G base stations along runways for six months, similar to restrictions imposed in France.
President Joe Biden hailed the decision to delay as “a significant step in the right direction.” The European Union Aviation Safety Agency and South Korea have also reported no unsafe interference with radio waves since the deployment of 5G in their regions.
As the aviation and telecom industries continue to work together, it is clear that safe coexistence is possible. The delay in 5G deployment is a crucial step towards finding a solution that prioritizes both safety and innovation. With ongoing collaboration and technical assessments, the United States can join the growing list of countries where 5G and airlines coexist without issue.

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