Fusion energy is often called the 'Holy Grail' of sustainable power, writes Keelan Keogh, Engineers Ireland policy officer and Chartered engineer.

Fusion is the process that powers stars; when hydrogen atoms in the core of a star get close, they fuse to form heavier atoms like helium; this fusing process releases large amounts of energy in the form of light and heat. It is this process that makes a star like our Sun burn. If we can replicate this process on Earth, it would provide enormous amounts of energy to humanity.

Two kinds of hydrogen

To replicate the fusion reaction on Earth, we need two kinds of hydrogen: deuterium and tritium. However, because both are positively charged, they tend to repel one another.

In a star, due to its strong gravity, hydrogen atoms fuse at 15 million°C. On Earth, however, because of weaker gravitational forces, they need to be heated at temperatures as high as 150 million to 200 million°C in order to collide. This has been done many times for very short durations at sites worldwide, notably at Culham Science Centre in the UK, which holds a record of about five seconds on a Tokamak, a magnetic fusion device.

This achievement is a considerable feat of science and engineering. Hundreds of engineers from all disciplines, electrical, mechanical, material, and civil, work together to design and maintain the equipment needed to create fusion reactions.

The UK currently has the largest fusion reactor in the world with a machine called JET (Joint European Torus). This machine was built in the 1980s as an experimental reactor for Europe.

JET’s successor, a new reactor, is under construction in the south of France called ITER, the world's largest fusion experiment. ITER will be the first machine to produce more energy for output than is required for input and will operate for much longer durations than JET is capable of, thanks to superconducting magnets. ITER will be the machine that will fully demonstrate fusion power.

Figure 1: ITER reactor cross-section.

ITER is currently under construction, and at the beginning of commissioning for several components, there are enormous opportunities for European businesses to develop and provide equipment for it.

Well positioned to become a significant player

With its commitment to environmentally friendly technologies and a highly skilled labour force, Ireland is well positioned to become a significant player in fusion research.

The European Fusion body, Fusion for Energy (F4E), has appointed its first industrial liaison officer for Ireland, Keelan Keogh. He has almost a decade of experience developing robotic maintenance systems for fusion reactors in the UK, and is confident in Ireland's ability to contribute to the development of this new energy technology: "Ireland has great potential to assist development in the fusion sector," he says.

"With ITER entering its final stages of construction and the development of the UK STEP reactor, as well as numerous private fusion industries in the world, Ireland is poised to utilise our highly skilled engineers to support this industry."

With the global interest in fusion, there are two significant conferences on the topic, which attract hundreds of engineers and scientists from around the world to discuss the challenges and opportunities of fusion.

In September 2024, the SOFT conference will be held at Dublin City University, providing a huge opportunity for Irish industry to attend and see first hand the technology that has been developed and its applications for Irish industry.

Figure 2: ITER construction site Cadarache, France

Now within reach

With fusion technology now within reach for Irish engineers, high-end technology roles in areas such as material science, superconducting systems, and robotics – to name but a few in which Irish industry has some unique developments – are available.

Numerous business opportunities are emerging for Irish engineers as fusion technology progresses, and the industrial liaison officer will play a pivotal role in connecting Irish industry with the broader fusion industry.

As fusion technology advances, the demand for skilled professionals is set to skyrocket. Ireland is poised to tap into this potential, offering a fertile ground for businesses to thrive and contribute towards the global fusion endeavour. Fusion not only promises sustainable and limitless energy but also catalyses economic growth and job creation in high-end technology.

If you feel your business could contribute to fusion technology, please contact kkeogh@engineersireland.ie.