Take the 2-minute tour ×
Physics Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for active researchers, academics and students of physics. It's 100% free, no registration required.

I'm curious about why tokamaks are inefficient as generators. In laymans terms, what is the main reason(s) tokamaks still cannot be used as generators?

My limited understanding of tokamaks tells me that the magnetic field required to keep the plasma in place and moving demands a vast amount of energy, much more than the tokamak itself can produce. Is there other ways we could create strong magnetic fields to contain the plasma?

And just how small could a tokamak be?

share|improve this question
I can't find exact numbers which is why this is a comment but: A plasma requires a plasma current to maintain confinement. This current can be created in several ways: (by induction - efficent, by neutral beam injection - inefficence, by RF heating - inefficient.) The only efficient method (induction) requires a changing voltage and that voltage cannot reverse without temporarily reducing the plasma current to 0 and so dispersing the plasma. This has caused most machines to be opperated in "pulse" mode –  Richard Tingle Apr 23 at 14:02

2 Answers 2

up vote 3 down vote accepted

Well, a large number of countries, after the break even ( actually 60% of output over input energy) in energy of the prototype tokamak in JET joined into creating ITER, a prototype Tokamak design designed to have output energy in megawats.

If interested you should go to the FAQ of the link given for ITER .

There exist alternate projects:

Of the "magnetic confinement concepts" for fusion (mainly tokamaks and stellarators) the main advantage of ITER and its tokamak technology is that for the time being, the tokamak concept is by far the most advanced toward producing fusion energy. It is consequently pragmatism that dictated the choice of the tokamak concept for ITER. Stellarators are inherently more complex than tokamaks (for example, optimized designs were not possible before the advent of supercomputers) but they may have advantages in reliability of operation. The W7-X Stellarator, presently under construction in Greifswald, Germany, will allow good benchmarking against the performance of comparable tokamaks. These results will be incorporated in decisions about how DEMO, the next-generation fusion device after ITER, will look.

The "inertial fusion concepts" are something quite different. These technologies have mainly been developed to simulate nuclear explosions and were not originally planned to produce fusion energy. The inertial fusion concept has not demonstrated so far that it offers a better or shorter path than magnetic confinement to energy production. In Europe, the Euratom Framework Programs do not fund research on inertial fusion, but the program maintains a "watching brief" on developments.

Efficiency in tokamaks rises with dimensions, and that is why ITER is much larger than JET.

share|improve this answer
Question: Are you saying that JET achieved break even? I can't find mention of that online. I know that the reactor in Japan achieved break even conditions with D-D fuel, without actually achieving break even. I can't confirm that break even has been achieved in a tokamak. –  garyp Apr 23 at 13:44
@garyp That is what I remember, which was an argument for going on to the large designe of ITER. Still maybe my memory is at fault: it says only 6-% to breakeven goal here efda.org/faq/… –  anna v Apr 23 at 15:46

To get a lot of energy from a fusion reactor you need lots of D-T fusion events per second, and this means a combination of reasonably high density and very high temperature. This is extraordinarily difficult to achieve. In particular as you try and increase the plasma density it gets increasingly difficult to maintain the plasma in a stable state.

There have been studies of using other geometries for the magnetic fields, and these may be easier to use. See this article for details or Google for many similar articles. However it's early days and as far as I know no-one has actually used this type of geometry in a fusion reactor.

share|improve this answer

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.