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£22m fusion energy research facility to open in Rotherham in 2020

Image credit: Kittiphat Abhiratvorakul | Dreamstime.com

The UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) is to open a £22m fusion energy research facility in Rotherham next year.

The facility will see UKAEA working with industrial partners to put the UK in a strong position to commercialise nuclear fusion as a major source of low-carbon electricity in the years ahead.

Located at the heart of the UK’s advanced manufacturing region, the UKAEA base will bring 40 highly-skilled jobs to the South Yorkshire area and foster increased collaboration with research organisations including the University of Sheffield Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) and the Nuclear Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (NAMRC).

The Rotherham facility will be at the Advanced Manufacturing Park, whose existing occupiers include Rolls-Royce, McLaren Automotive and both the AMRC and NAMRC. It will be funded as part of the Government’s Nuclear Sector Deal delivered through the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. An additional £2m of investment is coming from Sheffield City Region’s Local Growth Fund.

The key role of the facility will be to develop and test joining technologies for fusion materials and components, e.g. novel metals and ceramics. These will then be tested and evaluated under conditions simulating the inside of a fusion reactor, including high heat flux, in-vacuum and strong magnetic fields.

It is hoped that the initiative will help UK companies win contracts as part of ITER – the international fusion project being built in the south of France. It may also enable technology development for the first nuclear fusion power plants in the future, which are already being designed.

The planned 25,000 sq/ft facility will require regular supplies of specialist metals and materials, providing opportunities for regional companies in the UK.  

Colin Walters, director of the National Fusion Technology Platform at UKAEA, said: “Momentum is growing in fusion research and we believe the opening of this facility in South Yorkshire represents a practical step towards developing power plants.

“This facility will provide fantastic opportunities for UK businesses to win contracts and put UKAEA in a great position to help deliver the necessary expertise for the first nuclear fusion power stations.”

Andrew Storer, chief executive officer of the Nuclear AMRC, added:"We're delighted to welcome UKAEA to the Advanced Manufacturing Park, and to the Sheffield region's world-leading cluster of applied innovation. We look forward to working with UKAEA at their new facility to develop manufacturing techniques for fusion power plants and help UK manufacturers win work in this growing global market.  

"This development has the potential to create many jobs in the local supply chain as fusion technology matures. This is a huge deal for Sheffield and the North, and we are really pleased to have played a part in this and to be working with UKAEA."

Fusion research aims to copy the process that 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 - 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.

It is anticipated that nuclear fusion could have 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, as the raw materials are found in seawater and the Earth’s crust.

Researchers at UKAEA are developing a type of fusion reactor known as a ‘tokamak’ – a magnetic chamber in which plasma is heated and controlled. The research is focused on preparing for the international tokamak experiment ITER, now being built in southern France. ITER – due to start up in 2025 – is designed to validate technology for the prototype power stations that are expected to follow it, and if successful should lead to electricity from fusion being on the grid by 2050.

Fusion research at UKAEA is funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and by the European Union under the Euratom treaty.

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