The UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) and the Henry Royce Institute for advanced materials (Royce) have today published a roadmap for developing materials for fusion energy.
The roadmap, developed with the input of over a hundred materials experts from the UK research community and industry, highlights five major areas of work required to enable the materials for future fusion power plants.
Fusion – the same principle by which the sun creates heat and light – has the potential to be an abundant, low-carbon and safe part of the world’s future sustainable energy supply.
Recent advances in the technology mean that prototype fusion power stations are now being designed, with the UK’s STEP plant due to go online in the early 2040s.
The leading contender for fusion power plants is the ‘tokamak’ – a ring-shaped machine in which fuel is confined with powerful magnets and heated until particles fuse together. The fusion process produces high-energy neutrons that can be turned into electricity, but which also significantly damage and irradiate materials within the device.
Identifying, developing and qualifying the right materials is key to delivering commercial fusion for two reasons. First, plant efficiencies, safety and availability often hinge on the quality of the component materials. Second, a sustainable fuel cycle requires highly productive fuel breeding materials. Both plant components and fuel breeder materials will need to withstand a highly challenging combination of neutron bombardment and thermal, magnetic, electric and mechanical loads in a tokamak power plant.
The five priority areas identified by the UK Fusion Materials Roadmap are:
- Novel materials to minimise the amount of activation in the structure of the fusion power plant;
- Compounds that can be used within the power plant to optimise breeding of the tritium fuel to sustain the fusion process;
- Magnets and insulators that are resistant to irradiation from fusion reactions – especially under cryogenic conditions;
- Structural materials able to retain their strength under neutron bombardment at high operating temperatures (over 550 degrees C);
- Engineering assurance for fusion materials – providing irradiated sample data and modelled predictions such that plant designers, operators and regulators have confidence that materials are suitable for use in future commercial power stations.
Dr Amanda Quadling, Director of Materials at UKAEA said:
“This roadmap is a national tool that aims to give UK materials researchers common themes to collaborate around. We hope to generate momentum in the testing, mechanistic understanding, and surmounting of, irradiation damage from fusion.
“The roadmap is also a teaching document for those who wish to learn more about fusion materials from a supply chain and regulatory point of view.
“It will help to form new partnerships across a wide range of materials stakeholders so we can bring fusion electricity to the world as quickly as possible.”
Professor David Knowles, CEO, Henry Royce Institute, said:
“The technological challenges of delivering fusion energy into practical application demand the development of materials which can withstand the extremely severe operational conditions of fusion power plants. We now need to pursue, as a matter of urgency, the development of novel materials which engineers can use to reliably withstand fusion plants demanding environments such high temperatures, severe irradiation, rapid thermal cycling gradients.
“This important materials roadmap published by Royce and UKAEA sets out what we need to do to ensure we can deliver on one of the most challenging technological missions we have ever faced; the controlled exploitation of fusion using a tokamak technology has the potential to deliver low-carbon fuel abundance to the benefit for millennia to come.”
About the UK Fusion Materials Roadmap
The roadmap report is a culmination of workshops and consultations with more than 140 experts from multinational organisations, SMEs, academia and research institutes.
At the start of 2021, UKAEA hosted, with the support and sponsorship of The Henry Royce Institute, a series of roadmap workshops with UK academia, industry and various parastatal enterprises. UKAEA also convened a number of consultations on irradiation and modelling, and distributed a questionnaire to the nuclear materials supply chain.
Inputs range from clear ideas for immediate R&D to close those materials performance gaps already defined, to broader and more generic long terms materials improvements which may in turn steer future engineering design in fusion tokamaks.
The exercise of compiling the roadmap has created a community of interested parties around fusion materials research. The next step will be the formation of a national Steering Group within this community, to facilitate and coordinate endeavours springboarding off the document. The aim is a programmatic effort towards rapid materials delivery.
The UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) carries out fusion energy research on behalf of the UK Government. UKAEA oversees Britain’s fusion programme, headed by the MAST Upgrade (Mega Amp Spherical Tokamak) experiment. It also hosts the world’s largest fusion research facility, JET (Joint European Torus), which it operates for European scientists under a contract with the European Commission.
Fusion research aims to copy the process which powers the Sun for a new large-scale source of clean energy here on Earth. When light atomic nuclei fuse together to form heavier ones, a large amount of energy is released. To do this, fuel is heated to extreme temperatures, ten times hotter than the centre of the Sun, forming a plasma in which fusion reactions take place. A commercial power station will use the energy produced by fusion reactions to generate electricity.
Fusion has huge potential as a long-term energy source that is environmentally responsible (with no carbon emissions) and inherently safe, with abundant and widespread fuel resources.