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Slips in ITER schedule mean China’s fusion project may finish first

Slips in ITER schedule mean China’s fusion project may finish first thumbnail

The world’s largest nuclear fusion machine, currently being built in France, is unlikely to produce more energy than it consumes until the early 2030s, warned the UK’s head of fusion research this week. That is five years later than planned – by which time China could be ahead of everyone.

Nuclear fusion involves heating a plasma of hydrogen isotopes so that they fuse into helium, releasing a large amount of energy in the process. Many physicists see it as the holy grail for producing cheap zero-carbon energy. But initiating the fusion reactions requires temperatures 10 times as hot as the core of the sun. And decades of experiments have yet to produce self-sustaining fusion reactions – known as “burning plasma” – that generate the energy required to produce such temperatures.

The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), a $20 billion machine being built in Cadarache, France, should get there. “We are confident that it will,” Steven Cowley, director of the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy in Oxfordshire, told the science and technology committee of the UK’s House of Lords on Tuesday. But it is taking time and money.

Burning plasma

Constructing ITER has already cost three times as much as budgeted, and completion has slipped from 2016 to 2019, with the first plasma experiments the following year. Cowley told the committee: “ITER says 2020, but I believe the first plasma will be [generated] in 2025.” Burning plasma is unlikely before “the early 2030s”, he said. He likened the moment when burning plasma is achieved to the moment in the early 1940s when the first “critical” nuclear fission reactions were produced.

Only then will the international researchers, many of whom have been working together for decades, move on to building a new plant that could generate continuous power – the forerunner for what they hope will be commercial nuclear fusion by late in the century. “But the biggest investment now is in China,” says Cowley. China is a collaborator on ITER, along with the European Union, the US and others. But it is investing heavily in building its own reactor, the China Fusion Engineering Test Reactor, which will be bigger than ITER and may be finished by 2030, he said.

Cowley disclosed that some partners had discussed whether to continue collaboration with China or shut them out. “We decided to continue to collaborate.” Shutting China out “would only slow them down by a few months”, he told the Lords, who are investigating whether the UK government is getting value for money in its fusion investments. Fusion currently accounts for 14 per cent of UK government spending on energy research, Sharon Ellis of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills told the committee.

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11 Comments on "Slips in ITER schedule mean China’s fusion project may finish first"

  1. dave thompson on Fri, 24th Jul 2015 7:23 pm 

    15 years to go………still.

  2. Newfie on Fri, 24th Jul 2015 7:38 pm 

    Limitless energy from nuclear fusion is only ten years away. And it always will be…

  3. Makati1 on Fri, 24th Jul 2015 10:04 pm 

    Dream on….

  4. steve on Sat, 25th Jul 2015 9:49 am 

    I am not sure what is scarier…the reality of our current situation or the sci-fi version if they were to make this work…either outcome is scary….

  5. idontknowmyself on Sat, 25th Jul 2015 9:53 am 

    First paragraph says it all.

    The world’s largest nuclear fusion machine, currently being built in France, is unlikely to produce more energy than it consumes until the early 2030s, warned the UK’s head of fusion research this week. That is five years later than planned – by which time China could be ahead of everyone.

    Cannot escape law of thermodynamic on earth, you cannot produce more energy that you consume.

  6. Outcast_Searcher on Sat, 25th Jul 2015 10:36 am 

    I’m a software guy, but I do get involved in solving complex problems and building complex (virtual) machines.

    Doesn’t it smack of desperation to be BUILDING a machine to do something BEFORE you have a WELL UNDERSTOOD AND THOROUGHLY PROVEN PRACTICAL solution in hand?

    How do they know it will even work? If/when the process is nailed down, how do they know the “fusion machine” will be safe, and the design appropriate for long life, reasonable efficiency, etc?

    This smells like government boondoggle to me, i.e. a lot of vastly overpriced and under-delivered promises. (Given that it’s France, that’s hardly surprising).

  7. Outcast_Searcher on Sat, 25th Jul 2015 10:47 am 

    idontknowmyself said: “Cannot escape law of thermodynamic on earth, you cannot produce more energy that you consume.”

    You’ve never heard of waste heat? Every old style incandescent light bulb produces much more energy than is used as light via waste heat. Same story for ICE auto engines.

    If you’re going to cite a law, please do so coherently. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laws_of_thermodynamics

    If you’re talking about the conservation of energy (as I presume you are from context), this isn’t about getting something from nothing or a perpetual motion machine.

    Many stars produce abundant energy for billions of years via a natural process, with a gravity well doing the work.

    The problem is we are trying to do it artificially, without the aid of such a gravity well — and there is NO assurance we can do it safely, reliably, or at anything close to a reasonable (sustainable) cost.

    (Of course, why should government care? Only the taxpayer gets soaked if it doesn’t work — and if you’re in big government, what could be better than that?)

  8. penury on Sat, 25th Jul 2015 10:58 am 

    Outcast S you kind of lost me at”Every old style incandescent light bulb produces much more energy than is used as light via waste heat.” I understand that I am a pedantic twit, but that is my burden yours is to try for accuracy.

  9. idontknowmyself on Sat, 25th Jul 2015 2:02 pm 

    Incandescent bulbs are much less efficient than most other types of electric lighting; incandescent bulbs convert less than 5% of the energy they use into visible ligh

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Incandescent_light_bulb

    A incandescent light bulb, is a heat device. A 100 watt light bulb produce 95 watt of heat.

    Like I said, as far as we know, on earth you cannot escape the law of thermodynamics.

  10. Speculawyer on Sat, 25th Jul 2015 2:15 pm 

    Finish first?

    The question is whether anyone will finish at all.

    Although someone made a pretty damn interesting point the other day. Even if they figure out how to do controlled fusion, it may end up being too expensive. With wind and solar now having PPAs at less than 5 cents a watt these days, could a big expensive fusion plant ever really compete with that?

    But it would have the advantage of being more consistent and dispatchable.

  11. Ed on Sun, 26th Jul 2015 5:14 am 

    Once net fossil energy extraction goes into terminal decline, that will be curtains for fusion. The window of opportunity in which to have it up and running will have closed; for ever.

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