Culham Science Centre, the hottest place on earth

SO Business were taking a look at some cutting edge projects and experiments on Wednesday night, being given a guided tour of Culham Science Centre.  Billed as “the hottest place on earth” our team, accompanied by local district councillors were feeling the heat on what was also the longest day of the year.

Culham Science Centre is home to the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy (CCFE) which is the UK’s national laboratory for fusion research. More famously it is the site of the Joint European Torus (JET), a scientific project looking into the viability of nuclear fusion.

Nuclear fusion at Culham

Nuclear fusion is one of the most promising options for generating large amounts of carbon-free energy in the future. Fusion is the process that heats the Sun and all other stars, where atomic nuclei collide together and release energy. Fusion scientists and engineers are developing the technology to use this process in tomorrow’s power stations. To get energy from fusion, gas from a combination of types of hydrogen is heated to very high temperatures (100 million degrees Celsius). High temperatures are achieved through controlling hot gas with strong magnets inside a ring-shaped magnetic chamber called a ‘tokamak’. Robotics are essential to operate and maintain the fusion reactor.


So Business were treated to an up close look at two fusion experiments – JET and MAST (Mega Amp Spherical Tokamak).  JET is the world’s largest and most powerful tokamak and the focal point of the European fusion research programme, designed to study fusion in conditions approaching those needed for a commercial  power plant. The JET facilities are collectively used by European fusion scientists. MAST is one of the world’s two leading spherical tokamaks and is the focal point of the UK fusion research programme.

Over 30,000 man-made ‘stars’ have now been created by experiments inside MAST. The aim of MAST is to increase understanding of how to remove the heat when creating energy. This can accelerate the development of commercial fusion power and smaller and cheaper power plants.

          UKAEA communications manager Chris Warrick explains how the JET machine works

More about Culham

  • There are over 2,000 employees and 40 organisations on the Culham site.
  • CCFE is the only laboratory in the world that is able to store and use tritium, a type of hydrogen.
  • CCFE is largely funded by the EU. Discussions are continuing with UK Government and they remain positive about the fusion programme.
  • JET is the only machine with a full robotic facility for remote handling: upgrades to JET are done by a machine which is controlled from a room 30 metres away.
  • Culham has the highest concentration of qualified scientists/engineers outside of London
  • Around 500 people are employed at the JET facilities, with around 350 European scientists visiting each year to conduct research.
  • The Material Research Facility looks at micro-mechanical testing of fusion material. This will lead to the development of longer lasting material and reducing the operating costs of fusion power plants.
  • Many pioneering businesses are based at the Innovation Centre including air breathing rocket engines, lithium rechargeable batteries to power autonomous vehicles, and next generation artificial knee joints known as VGK’s or Very Good Knees!
  • The purpose-built Oxford Advanced Skills centre enables businesses to offer young people hi-tech and engineering apprenticeships of the highest quality.  The first intake of apprentices started in September 2016. Eventually the centre will train 125 young people per year.

RACE (Remote Applications in Challenging Environments)

RACE at Culham
          The exterior of the RACE building, the newest building on the Culham campus

So Business also toured the new Remote Applications in Challenging Environments (RACE) facility. RACE is conducting R&D and commercial activities to apply the remote handling and robotics technology used on JET to deep sea exploration, mining, driverless vehicles, augmented reality – any environment where robotics and remote handling is needed. For example, RACE is to become a test site for driverless cars (see short video below). The 10 kilometres of roads, junctions, roundabouts (even traffic lights and pedestrian crossings) within the closed Culham site is a perfect ‘test track’ for these vehicles to test their ability to monitor and react to other vehicles, cyclists and people in realistic circumstances, whatever the weather.

The commercialisation of the knowledge and technology at Culham will be important to secure the future of the fusion programme. As part of Oxfordshire’s Knowledge Spine and the Science Vale cluster, Culham Science Centre is an important contributor to the local economy, to national innovation, and to fostering international collaboration.