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Q&A with UKAEA’s STEP Manufacturing Lead, Lee Aucott

Wed, 25 May, 2022

We are pleased to be welcoming Lee Aucott to our, ‘Manufacturing and Materials Challenges in Fusion and Big Science’ event at our headquarters near Cambridge on 14 June 2022.

Lee is the STEP Manufacturing Lead at the UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA), working at the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy, the UK’s national fusion laboratory. He will be presenting on the topic, ‘joining of tungsten to ferritic martensitic steels for fusion in vessel components’ at our event, so we took some time to find out more about Lee’s role, his presentation, fusion energy, and the work of the UKAEA.

Hi Lee, can you start by letting anyone who doesn’t know, what the UKAEA does and also about the work of the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy?

UKAEA is the UK’s national fusion research laboratory. From theoretical physics to operating two major experiments and carrying out advanced reactor engineering, we lead the world in putting this transformative energy technology on the grid.

What is your role as the STEP Manufacturing Lead?

I am responsible for the manufacture and inspection of the STEP prototype powerplant. This includes development of the conceptual methods of manufacture, key manufacturing technologies, supply chain, and the overall future planning of the powerplants’ manufacture and inspection.

What are the benefits of fusion energy that make it an attractive future energy source?

More than 80% of the world’s energy comes from fossil fuels. Climate change and diminishing fuel reserves mean the race is on to find alternative, sustainable technologies to supply a growing global population.

Future energy supply options may include fossil fuels, nuclear fission and renewables. However, fusion could provide a significant new long-term source of low-carbon electricity from the second half of this century onwards.

Fusion offers a secure and abundant source of supply for many thousands of years, with important additional advantages. These include: no production of greenhouse gases from the fusion process; less long-lived radioactive waste than nuclear fission; and inherent safety features.

Once commercialised, fusion will have a key role to play in the energy market of the future.

So, why aren’t we seeing fusion energy being used already? What are the challenges faced by industry?

Fusion energy is an immense integration dilemma and there any many challenges that need to be overcome to on the path to commercial fusion energy. Next generation experimental reactors, such as ITER, will be critical to the next stage of fusion’s progression. ITER plans to: 1) Produce 500 MW of fusion power, 2) demonstrate the integrated operation of technologies for a fusion power plant, 3) achieve a deuterium-tritium plasma in which the reaction is sustained through internal heating, 4) test tritium breeding, 5) demonstrate the safety characteristics of a fusion device.

How close do you think we are to solving these challenges?

The international race to commercial fusion is really accelerating, in both the public and private sector. More than 15 fusion-energy start-ups have been created since 2009, including Tokamak Energy and First Light Fusion in the UK. The New York Times recently reported that total private investment in fusion is approaching $2bn. Globally, interest in fusion energy is growing. The Canadian company, General Fusion has announced that it will build a demonstration plant on the UK Atomic Energy Agency’s Culham site in Oxfordshire to prove its proprietary Magnetised Target Fusion. Meanwhile, the British Government has invested £220m in the conceptual design the Spherical Tokamak for Energy Production (STEP). So, we are certainly on the right trajectory to solving the challenges.

Looking at your presentation, you are speaking about joining tungsten to ferritic martensitic steels for fusion in vessel components, why is this topic important?

Fusion reactors are the hottest place in the universe and the place with the highest thermal gradient, we therefore need an exotic and varied pallet of materials that then need to be joined together. Tungsten is commonly used as the plasma facing armour and steel used for structural components, therefore methods to join these highly dissimilar materials are of key interest. At UKAEA, we have been exploring some innovative new ways to join these materials and this will be the focus of the talk – hopefully it will be interesting!

Thanks for your time and we look forward to seeing you on 14 June but, before you go, is there anything more you would like to add?

Really looking forward to the event and opportunity to have some good discussion with peers from both within the fusion sector and other interested parties that might be coming into fusion fresh.

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