Fusion energy research is at an international turning point. On one hand, the need to solve the climate and energy crises and, on the other hand, the investments into private enterprises are hastening this form of energy that is still under development. This is why VTT continues to upgrade its scientific excellence in fusion research and its technology development work. VTT's leading researcher, Dr. Tuomas Tala, was named Research Professor of fusion technology from 1 March 2023. Tala has also worked for 10 years in the UK at the Joint European Torus (JET) tokamak, which is the world’s largest and best-performing fusion research device.
Fusion reactors are being developed primarily to produce basic power – generating electricity or producing hydrogen on a large scale. A promising method of clean energy production is an object of keen interest internationally. Development work for fusion energy has become increasingly technology driven, with the emergence of commercial actors, which number more than 30 around the world, most of which are in the United States. Last year private funding of fusion research (~ 3 billion euros) exceeded public funding.
“One of the most important tasks of the new professorship is to ensure that we will be able to respond to the rapid changes in fusion research. Finnish companies are now capable of supplying specific components and systems for fusion reactors being built abroad. The aim is to promote stronger knowledge and skills in fusion”, Tuomas Tala says.
VTT has been conducting fusion research since the mid-1970s, but the research started to expand in the 1990s after Finland joined the EU .
“Fusion research enabled by funding from Euratom grew quickly and Tuomas Tala has been successfully leading this development at VTT. Fusion technology requires multidisciplinary expertise, which we have at VTT. As the technology moves closer to practical implementation, synergy can be found for traditional nuclear energy research connected with fission energy”, says Petri Kotiluoto, who heads VTT's Nuclear Energy research area.
Developing clean energy for future generations makes fusion research intriguing
The unrivalled advantages of fusion energy are what made Tuomas Tala choose the field.
“Learning as a student about the great potential of fusion energy to affect the quality of life of future generations with clean energy, woke my interest. Fusion reactors do not produce any of the highly radioactive waste that comes from fission reactors. Another benefit that is at least of equal importance is that fusion reactors are inherently safe for the simple reason that they contain an amount of fusionable fuel in the tens of kilogrammes, and fusion reactors cannot undergo the kind of accident in which would force the evacuation of nearby residents”, Tala explains.
Many more technological breakthroughs will be needed before fusion energy is taken into demonstration use – the target is in the late 2030s.
“One milestone, the production of thermal net energy, was achieved in the field of laser fusion research at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in the USA in December 2022. In the branch of research based on magnetic confinement this goal is also realistic in the 2020s. The next large-scale goal involves ITER's Deuterium-Tritium experiments in the 2030s. The goal of fusion demo reactors being developed parallel to each other is to demonstrate the production of net electrical energy of, for example, 100MW. After this demonstration the commercialisation of fusion energy is certain to move forward at a high speed”, Tala says.
Fusion energy is nuclear energy, so the societal acceptability of fusion energy will be an important theme in the next 10 years. For the sake of endogenous security, it is important that the future licensing of fusion reactors should not require excessively difficult processes. Licensing is one area of research in which Finland has strengths also in the corporate world.
Tuomas Tala represents Finland on the board of Fusion for Energy (the EU Procurement office for ITER's European deliveries). He represents Finland on the board of the EUROfusion consortium which conducts fusion research for the EU under the authority of Euratom, and he serves as the Head of FinnFusion Research Unit. Tala is the European Member of the ITER Tokamak Physics Activity ITPA group of the ITER reactor.