Nine organisations have secured contracts worth £11.6m ($14.6bn) in total from United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) to develop innovative technologies for fusion energy. The nine organisations have been awarded a total of 10 contracts and are a mix of start-ups, small-medium enterprises, established companies, and academia.

The contracts range between £500,000 and £1.4m, and are funded by the Fusion Industry Programme (FIP) which was launched in 2021. FIP forms part of the Government’s support for the UK fusion industry by developing the necessary technology and skills for the future global fusion powerplant market.

Eight organisations are focusing on manufacturing and materials including: 3-Sci, Alloyed, Duality Quantum Photonics, Full Matrix, Jacobs, Oxford Sigma, TWI (Coldspray technology), and University of Birmingham. In addition, two organisations are focused on heating and cooling technologies – Cal Gavin and TWI (Coreflow technology).

Tim Bestwick, UKAEA’s Chief Development Officer, said: “Delivering fusion energy is one of the great scientific and engineering challenges of our time. The Fusion Industry Programme is supporting businesses to overcome these challenges and help make fusion a commercial reality.

“These organisations have been awarded contracts after successfully demonstrating the feasibility of their concepts through earlier stages of the Fusion Industry Programme and will now develop their technologies to the ‘proof of concept’ stage.”

This latest announcement follows the award of FIP contracts earlier this year for organisations which had successfully demonstrated feasibility of technologies focused on digital engineering and fusion fuel requirements.

Meanwhile, UKAEA said fusion energy scientists and engineers at the Joint European Torus (JET) had developed a world leading method involving lasers to release and measure tritium trapped in fusion energy tokamaks.

Most approaches to creating commercial fusion favour the use two hydrogen isotopes – deuterium and tritium. Their use is preferred in tokamaks such as JET and in future fusion power plants. Deuterium is plentiful and can be extracted from seawater. Tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen, is scarce and has a half-life of about 12 years. When they fuse together, they produce helium and vast amounts of energy.

“When you run the deuterium-tritium fusion process, tritium gets absorbed by the tokamak’s inner wall during the energy reaction,” explained Anna Widdowson, UKAEA Erosion & Deposition Group Leader. “It diffuses from the surface of components into the material and becomes trapped. The amount of trapped tritium needs to be accounted for as part of the overall management of tritium in the fusion fuel cycle. Therefore, a method for releasing and measuring tritium in the tokamak wall is needed,” she continued.

EUROFusion scientists and engineers at UKAEA’s JET research facility were successful in using a laser based diagnostic method to do this. Laser Induced Desorption Quadruple Mass Spectrometry (LID-QMS) – the act of laser pulsing materials and surfaces to release and measure tritium – had never been tried in a deuterium-tritium fusion environment before.

By fast heating the tiles in JET with a high-powered laser, this causes the rapid expansion and evaporation of gases retained in deposits on the tile surface. The released gases, including tritium, are then identified and measured using mass spectrometers. The control of the LID-QMS laser targeting is extremely challenging. The laser beam path is 35-metres long and is capable of delivering 100 laser spots spaced 3 mm apart along a snake-like path in just two seconds.

The same laser-based techniques can be applied to future fusion machines that have different composite materials for the in-vessel walls, providing the potential for in-vessel tritium monitoring which in turn brings potential for efficiency in operation.

“It is a huge achievement to demonstrate a reliable way to measure tritium retained within a fusion device without the costly interruption to operations to take materials for sampling,” said Dr Widdowson. “LID-QMS is a ground-breaking piece of work, which is a true collaborative effort between colleagues at UKAEA and Forschungszentrum Jülich, Germany. This will help inform the tritium inventory management and operation of future deuterium-tritium fusion machines.”

The LID-QMS diagnostic experiment is one of the last ever for JET as its scientific operations conclude at the end of this year. JET will move on to the next phase of its life cycle in early 2024 for repurposing and decommissioning, which will last until around 2040. JET has played a critical role in accelerating the development of fusion energy, which promises to be a safe, low carbon and sustainable part of the world’s future energy supply. The UK’s next deuterium-tritium fusion facility, the prototype fusion powerplant, STEP, is set to be built by 2040 in Nottinghamshire.

Image: The LID-QMS laser in situ within the JET torus hall (courtesy of UK Atomic Energy Authority)