World inches closer to a clean, green, dream of an energy source: nuclear fusion

Time is running out. Our insatiable demand for energy is taking us on a road to runaway climate change. There is a distinct possibility that if we continue on our current course that we could damage the Earth beyond repair.

Renewable energies are still limited and unpredictable, hydropower can be ecologically catastrophic and nuclear fission comes with its own set of problems. Nuclear fusion – the process which powers the Sun – however, comes with very little risk and much reward. But to date has never turned into a reality due to its complexity.

All this might change. Construction of the world’s largest nuclear fusion project has finally begun in southern France, with the goal of proving that nuclear fusion can be a safe, clean, unlimited and commercial energy source.

The ground breaking multinational experiment, ITER, is not a design for a future commercial reactor, but a way of demonstrating that large-scale fusion is possible. The project, the product of several countries working together, launched in 2006 although it was first proposed in 1985.

The components must now be painstakingly put together to finish the “world’s largest puzzle”. Once complete the giant reactor, known as a tokamak, will weigh almost 23,000 metric tonnes and stand 60 meters high. Almost 3,000 tonnes of superconducting magnets, some heavier than a jumbo jet, will be connected by 200km of superconducting cables, all kept at -269oC by the world’s largest cryogenic plant.

The process that will follow, involving fusing atoms together in a controlled environment, releases nearly four million times more energy than the burning of coal, oil or gas. The first plasma is expected to be produced in December 2025, which should prove the reactor concept works, with full power expected by 2035, although there could be delays.

The facility is meant to produce about 500 megawatts of thermal power, translating into about 200 megawatts of electric energy if operated continuously, or enough to power some 200,000 homes.

The project has a budget of €20 billion (£17.6bn), with almost half of that coming from the EU. The remainder is shared equally between China, the UK, Switzerland, India, Japan, South Korea, Russia and the US. Although in reality members deliver little monetary contribution to the project, instead providing ‘in-kind’ contributions of components, systems or buildings.

France’s President Emmanuel Macron said ITER, if successful, will be an energy that will “answer the needs of populations in all parts of the world, meet the challenges of climate change and preserve natural resources…ITER belongs to the spirit of discovery, of ambition.”

ITER Director-General Bernard Bigot said: “we feel the weight of history. It is now one hundred years since scientists first understood that fusion energy was the power source for the Sun and stars and some six decades since the first tokamak was built in the Soviet Union…We feel the need for both urgency and patience. We know we need a replacement for fossil fuels as soon as possible…We are moving forward as rapidly as possible … If we succeed, it will be worth all the time and effort that have brought us to this point.”

Nuclear fusion is being explored by many private companies, albeit with much smaller devices, including Tokamak Energy, based in the UK which has raised £117m in investment. Other nuclear fusion companies include Tri Alpha Energy, which harnesses particle accelerator technology is working with Google. General Fusion, which uses a vortex of molten lead and lithium to contain the plasma is backed by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos.

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