Fusion power promises to deliver unlimited green energy using cheap and plentiful smokel, but it’s a longtime joke his still in 20 years. Latest the week, good that, construction has started on ITER fusion factory in France, which hopes to prove the commercial viability of the merger Power.
While conventional nuclear power plants generate energy by dividing the atoms, nuclear fusion involves breaking two atoms together. This produces considerably more energy than the fission process we already have control over and does not produce long-lived radioactive waste. It also does not depend on radioactive elements like uranium and plutonium for fuel, but instead uses abundant isotopes of hydrogen called deuterium and tritium.
The only catch is that trying to contain a nuclear fusion reaction is like trying to keep the sun in a box. It’s the same reaction that powers all the stars, and trying to grab that kind of raw power and turn it into something that we can use effectively is a challenge scientists have been struggling for decades.
To melt fuel, it must first be heated to ten times the temperature of the snucleus of one, which creates a superhot plasma. To maintain fusion reactions, this plasma must be strictly confined and isolated from other components. Fortunately, plasmas can be manipulated with the help of magnetic fields, so gigantic electromagnets are used.re to keep the plasma spinning around a donut-shaped reactor called the Tokamak.
The problem is, all of this heating and magnetic confinement requires colossal amounts of energy. Although we have been successful in making fusion reactions work on Earth, they have always used a lot more energy than they produced. The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) in France is designed to change that.
The project has been under development for a long time. The idea was formulated at the end of the Cold War as a multinational collaboration, but the design work didn’t start properly until the turn of the millennium, and its parent organization was not launched until 2007. Last week French President Emmanuel Macron held a ceremony to celebrate the start of assembly of the reactor.
In the last five years factories, universities and national laboratories around the world worked on the construction of the plant’s components, some of which weigh several hundred tons, including a magnet strong enough to lift an aircraft carrier. It will take another five years to put all the parts together and prepare the reactor for its first test.
“Building the machine piece by piece will be like assembling a Three– dimensional puzzle on a complex chronology ”, Director General of ITER Bernard Bigot said in a press release. “All aspects of project management, systems engineering, risk management and machine assembly logistics must work with the precision of a Swiss watch.”
The hope is that by 2025 the plant will be able to produce the ‘first plasma’, a test designed to ensure the reactor work; the test will produce roughly 500 megawatts of thermal power. It will be another decade before the plant produces enough energy to be commercially viable. This will involve building an even larger plasma chamber to provide 10 to 15 times more electrical energy.
While 15 years doesn’t seem like a big improvement out of 20, project leaders are confident that this is the first step towards fusion power that is fulfilling its promise to revolutionize our energy systems.
However, it faces some competition. The UK government and various startups have announced plans to continue nuclear fusion, often targeting reactors that are much smaller and easier to build than ITER. And despite overwhelming support from several nation states, the project’s long history of cost overruns and delays means it’s certainly not a sure-fire winner.
But the project will soon be one of the biggest science experiments in the world, and winis or not, there is no doubt that this will greatly advance our understanding of fusion energy. Harnessing the power of the sun on Earth may not seem like a crazy idea for much longer.
Image Credit: ITER