There’s something happening right now that many of you might not have heard about. It’s a step towards the future of energy, known as ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor). The project is an attempt to recreate experimental studies of plasma physics in a full-scale, electricity-producing fusion power plant at the Cadarache facility in the south of France. It promises to be the world’s largest and most advanced experimental tokamak nuclear fusion reactor, surpassing the Joint European Torus. A tokamak is basically a device using a magnetic field to confine plasma in the shape of a torus. The theory behind the toroidal design is a little complicated and besides the point so I’ll just stick this picture in here I got off Wikipedia to help you visualise a torus.
For those of you who know about fusion, it’s the opposite principle of current nuclear power reactors, which use fission. Fusion fuses two or more atomic nuclei together into a heavier nucleus. The process releases a large amount of energy (more than fission, which is the splitting of atoms).
The project is being funded by seven members – the European Union, as the host, contributing 45% of the cost, while India, Japan, China, Russia, South Korea and the United States are contributing 9% each.
Research into fusion technology has existed for a long time, but there’s always been a problem with its feasibility. Fusion inherently requires a large amount of energy. The Joint European Torus peaked at 65% of its input power in 1997 (meaning it produced less power than it took), but the ITER project hopes to produce ten times more power than its input. Unfortunately, this project will take a long time to complete. The current timeline for the project is:
2006 – Funding agreed upon by seven members
2008 – Site preparation and ITER itinerary begun
2009 – Site preparation completed
2010 – Tokamak complex excavation begun
2013 – Projected start of tokamak complex construction
2015 – Projected assembly of tokamak
2019 – Projected completion of tokamak assembly and start of torus
2020 – Projected achievement of first plasma
2027 – Projected start of deuterium-tritium operation
2038 – Projected end of project
The cooling of the reactor will be through a combination of a water cooling loops, as well as liquid nitrogen and a liquid helium system.
There are a number of criticisms for the project, generally focused on the practicality of containing the fusion project. As Pierre-Gilles de Gennes said on the topic of fusion, “We say that we will put the sun into a box. The idea is pretty. The problem is, we don’t know how to make the box.” Concerns in this regard include contamination of the reactor walls due to intense neutron bombardment. However, ITER maintains that it has considered and addressed all these issues.
The dream of fusion power has been a long one, and ever since cold fusion had been conclusively shut down it seemed like a distant dream. I’ve always maintained that it would be a shame for me not to live through an amazing breakthrough in science. I sincerely hope this “man made sun” will be successful within my lifetime.