An international project to generate power from nuclear fusion has reached a key milestone, with half of the infrastructure required now built.
Bernard Bigot, general manager of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), the main facility of which is based in southern France, said that the completion of half the project meant that the effort had returned to normal , after a series of difficulties. This would mean that the energy could be produced from the experimental site as of 2025.
The effort to bring the power of nuclear fusion closer The operation is supported by some of the largest developed and emerging economies in the world, including the EU, USA. UU., China, India, Japan, Korea and Russia. However, a review of the long-running project in 2013 found problems with its operation and organization. This led to the appointment of Bigot, and a reorganization that subsequent revisions have widely supported.
The power of fusion is one of the most sought-after technological objectives in the search for clean energy. Nuclear fusion is the natural phenomenon that feeds the sun, converting hydrogen into helium atoms through a process that occurs at extreme temperatures.
Replicating that process on earth on a sufficient scale could release more energy than humanity could need, but the problem is to create the extreme conditions necessary for such reactions to occur, taking advantage of the resulting energy in a useful way, and controlling the reactions once they have been induced.
For these reasons, nuclear physicists long ago abandoned fusion power as a potential source of commercial energy in favor of fission reactors, using processes by which radioactive materials release energy as they are induced to decompose.
The Iter project aims to use hydrogen fusion, controlled by large superconducting magnets, to produce massive heat energy that would power the turbines, similar to today's coal and gas power plants, which would produce electricity. This would produce energy free of carbon emissions, and potentially at low cost, if the technology can be made to work on a large scale.
For example, according to Iter scientists, an amount of hydrogen the size of a pineapple could be used to produce as much energy as 10,000 tons of coal.
However, although the merger has been the subject of intermittent scientific research projects since the 1940s, no means have yet been found to make it work under controllable conditions at the scale needed to produce the power of a power station. fossil fuel. The extreme conditions that handle the sun require temperatures of millions of degrees, and the imitation of those conditions has been elusive.
Iter has been described as the most complex scientific endeavor in the history of mankind. The project requires that the hydrogen plasma be heated to 150 mC, 10 times more than in the center of the sun. A donut-shaped reactor called tokamak would be surrounded by giant magnets that would remove the superheated plasma from the metal walls of the container. This requires the magnets to cool to -269 C.
Reaching this stage of the project has already required remarkable engineering feats, such as the manufacturer of more than 100,000 km of niobium-tin superconducting strands, produced by nine suppliers of more than seven years, to make magnets.
Bigot said that the milestone of building half of the project indicated that the rest of the project was now technically feasible.
However, there are still political difficulties. One is that the administration of US President Donald Trump is notably cooler in clean energy research than its predecessor, and the US budget contribution of almost 10%, or more than $ 1 billion, now partially in doubt. The EU is providing 45% of the cost of the project, and the rest provided by the other main partners.
Bigot, who is currently in Washington DC holding meetings to try to get out of the quagmire, told the Guardian he was confident the conflict could be resolved.
He said that the project was on track to reach "first plasma" in December 2025, which proves the concept. If successful, the Iter machine would produce 500 MW of power, enough to study a self-heating plasma, which has never been produced in a controlled manner on earth. That could in turn lead to the development of power plants to take advantage of the energy produced.
Google is also now working on fusion power, the first important test of technology in the private sector. This summer, the Internet giant announced that it had formed a partnership with Tri Alpha Energy, backed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, to generate new computer algorithms that could help test the concepts behind nuclear fusion engineering efforts.