Institute of Mechanical Engineers

As part of our Innovation campaign, we spoke to Tokamak Energy’s Dr Melanie Windridge about the company’s vision, the role of engineers in society, and what innovation means to her. Tokamak Energy is one of the companies supported by our Stephenson Fund.

What does Tokamak Energy do?

Tokamak Energy is working on nuclear fusion, the long-awaited holy grail of the energy field. It is the reaction that powers the sun and the stars, and fusion is terrifically hard to do. But harness this stellar reaction and clean, green, safe and abundant energy could be a reality around the world. The promise is tantalising.

Fusion now is an engineering problem. Fusion was achieved in the 1990s (in the JET tokamak at UKAEA Culham and TFTR in the US), but we need to design and build machines that can generate a net energy gain for a sustained period, and which will be economical to build, run and decommission. Tokamak Energy is bringing innovative ideas to the mainstream concept, building on solid foundations but using important new technologies to accelerate the development of fusion energy.

What are the key innovations of Tokamak Energy?

The fusion programme has been plagued by variable investment and delays, partly due to experimental fusion machines, called tokamaks, getting larger and larger. Two innovations – spherical tokamaks and high-temperature superconductors – open up the possibility of building smaller fusion machines.

Spherical tokamaks have a cored-apple shape rather than the conventional ring-doughnut shape. This change in design has been shown to improve the machine’s efficiency, but the lack of space could be problematic. High-temperature superconducting materials were discovered in the 1980s, but it is only recently that processes have been developed to form the ceramic material into a flexible tape that could be used to wind electro-magnets. Together, these innovations could revolutionise the energy field by delivering fusion smaller, cheaper and faster.

Tokamak Energy founder Alan Sykes pioneered the spherical tokamak concept in the 1980s and 90s. Now Tokamak Energy and collaborators are pioneering the development of high-temperature, superconducting magnets for tokamaks, which makes the tighter, spherical design a viable option for future power stations. With previous technology, this was seen as impossible.

Besides the new technology, the key innovative approach is our agility – keeping experimental devices as small as possible to prove our concepts before moving on. In this way we can investigate, learn and iterate quickly.

Watch how Tokamak Energy is developing nuclear fusion

What are the key challenges for the company?

Tokamak Energy is breaking the challenge of developing fusion power into a series of engineering challenges:

1. Build a tokamak with all magnets made from high-temperature superconductor (achieved in 2015).

2. Reach fusion temperatures in a compact tokamak. We are aiming for 100 million degrees in 2017. This is our Hundred Million Degree Challenge – alongside R&D we are using the thrill of the physics and engineering of such an emotive subject to engage the public, particularly school students, in the excitement of fusion energy and science careers.

3. Achieve energy breakeven – at least as much energy out of the machine as we put in to drive the fusion reactions. This would be the ‘Wright Brothers Moment’ for fusion. We aim to achieve this in 2020.

4. Produce electricity for the first time.

5. Go on to build reliable, economic, fusion power plants – a challenge in itself when one considers the engineering realities of creating such a hostile environment in the centre of a device with a desired operation lifetime of several decades.

Fusion is always described as being ‘10 years away’ – how true is this?

This is the big question – and often it’s said to be ‘always 30 years away’. It’s really difficult to give a timescale for something like this, because we are doing something that has never been done before, so we don’t know what we will find along the way. We have ideas and goals and route plans, but they can never be 100% accurate. Also, we are subject to external constraints, such as how much money is available to work on this. But Tokamak Energy hopes to demonstrate first electricity from fusion within 15 years.

Fusion is also really hard. Stop for a minute to consider what we are trying to do. We want to make a miniature star on Earth and capture its energy. A star. How do you keep a gas contained and insulated so well, that you can heat it up to hundreds of millions of degrees? And how does your container handle the huge amounts of energy as well as capture it for use? It’s understandably tricky.

The Norwegian scientist and polar explorer, Fridtjof Nansen, once said, “The difficult is what takes a little time; the impossible is what takes a little longer.” Be patient. We’re getting there.

What are the differences between what you are proposing and ITER, except size and £20bn price tag?

Size is a big thing! We are aiming to make smaller fusion machines and accelerate the development of fusion power. We hope to do this by making two big deviations from the ITER plan: we use a ‘spherical tokamak’ design and high-temperature superconductors.

How many engineers does Tokamak Energy employ?

Currently we have 25 or so engineers and scientists, but our team is growing fast. We have mechanical engineers, electronics engineers, electrical engineers and control system engineers. There are three engineers at board level.

Do you think we do enough to promote engineering and science in the UK?

Many people and organisations work hard to promote science and engineering in the UK, but there is still a societal attitude that these subjects are only for the super-smart or geeky, and particularly that they are not suited to girls. This is just not true. Jobs in Science Technology Engineering and Maths (STEM) are so varied and people can contribute on so many levels, that there must surely be something for everyone. Also, STEM skills are required in such a range of jobs, including in creative industries, that it’s vital that young people are aware of the opportunities and benefits of studying science and maths.

In my writing and outreach work, I really strive to give an appreciation of science and engineering so that it can be valued as part of our culture; not just for its economic benefits but for its wonder and fascination, in the same way as art and music. Because saying you don’t like science is like saying you don’t like music when you’ve listened to only one genre. We need to somehow show students the wonderful range of STEM, and give them appreciation and skills that they will carry through life, whatever they choose to do.

Do you believe Government should invest more in product development, or that this should be left to private capital investment?

At Tokamak Energy we believe that investment needs to be a mixture of Government and private, but it depends on the product and the stage of technology readiness. Sometimes private investment can give a well-needed boost. A good use of Government money is things like R&D tax credits, which encourage capital investment in research & development.

What does innovation mean to you?

For me, innovation is the product of exploration and I’m fascinated by this interaction. This is why exploration is so important – and by exploration I don’t just mean geographically, I mean scientific research too. Stepping out into the unknown is good. We learn. And we innovate.

Dr Melanie Windridge is a Business Development Manager at Tokamak Energy, with a PhD in plasma physics (fusion energy).