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Thermonuclear Fusion: How Scientists Hope to Extract Energy of Stars on Earth

Thermonuclear Fusion: How Scientists Hope to Extract Energy of Stars on Earth thumbnail

The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) project has reached an important milestone, passing the 50% completion mark this month. Nuclear physicist Anatoly Krasilnikov, director of Russia’s ITER Project Center, told the RIA Novosti news agency about Russia’s key role in the project.

ITER project general director Bernard Bigot announced last week that the ambitious $23.7 billion nuclear fusion research and engineering megaproject in Saint-Paul-les-Durance, southern France is now over 50% finished. The project, whose participants include Russia, the EU, the US, China, India, Japan, South Korea and Switzerland, envisions completing the assembly of its doughnut-shaped tokamak reactor by 2021, and starting the process of superheating hydrogen atoms to 150 million degrees Celsius – ten times the temperature of the Sun’s core, by 2025.

The idea of a reactor capable of controlled thermonuclear fusion for the creation of electrical energy is a dream stretching back decades. The problem, until now, has centered on the fact that thermonuclear fusion requires very significant energy resources to be achieved, together with highly exacting operating conditions, in order to avoid the reaction from being snuffed out.In the 20th century, Soviet physicists achieved a theoretical breakthrough on how to control the thermonuclear fusion process, coming up with the idea of the tokamak, a device made from magnetic coils and generating a powerful magnetic field to confine plasma fuel in a torus ring-like reactor.

The Configuration Management Model of the ITER Tokamak, without its plasma, produced by the Design Integration Section in July 2013.
The Configuration Management Model of the ITER Tokamak, without its plasma, produced by the Design Integration Section in July 2013.

Under the tokamak principle, deuterium and tritium isotopes of hydrogen are introduced into the chamber in gaseous form, enabling operators to separate electrons from them. The ionized plasma mixture is then heated to 150 million degrees Celsius, with the nuclei of the deuterium and tritium giving rise to helium nuclei. The process results in the release of fast neutrons, whose energy, transferred to a carrier of heat energy such as water, can then serve to create electricity, including via a conventional thermal power station.

National Research Nuclear University MEPhI
© Sputnik/ Evgeny Biyatov

Thinking about the creation of an international project for the use of controlled thermonuclear fusion started in 1985, when the USSR and the US proposed a joint effort in the field as a step toward ending the Cold War. However, it took nearly two decades for construction of the ITER experimental thermonuclear fusion reactor, which currently involves nearly three dozen other nations, to begin in southern France.Deuterium and tritium-based fuel will be used to fuel the fusion reaction. The reaction will then heat the reactor blankets – special modules inside the tokamak. From there, water will be collected into pools, where it will be cooled. Since it is experimental, the ITER reactor itself will not supply power to the French energy grid.

Russia Playing Crucial Role in Project

Russia, as heir to the pioneering work carried out by Soviet scientists, has played an integral role in the ITER project from the beginning, providing technology, know-how and funding for the experimental facility.

This year, Russia supplied the first of the 23 metric ton branch pipe components for ITER’s vacuum chamber. In the meantime, the St. Peterburg-based Sredne-Nevsky Shipyard is tasked with providing the reactor’s toroidal coil magnetic field generator parts, recently finishing the fifth of the eight doughnut-shaped components necessary. When delivered, these will be used to assemble the three-hundred-ton reactor ring module.

At the Srednenevsky Shipbuilding Plant in Saint Petersburg, Russia, specialists are winding the double pancakes for ITER's smallest poloidal field coil, PF1. Pictured is the first-completed double pancake after vacuum pressure impregnation with epoxy resin.
At the Srednenevsky Shipbuilding Plant in Saint Petersburg, Russia, specialists are winding the double pancakes for ITER’s smallest poloidal field coil, PF1. Pictured is the first-completed double pancake after vacuum pressure impregnation with epoxy resin.

Anatoly Krasilnikov, director of ITER Center, the Russian branch of the ITER project, explained that in addition to those parts, Russia has provided the ITER facility with coil superconductors and switching equipment. Supplies of these and other components will continue into 2018.

“ITER is a very complex design. All of its systems are unique, because they are being created for the first time,” Krasilnikov said, speaking to RIA Novosti.

Circular lens view of the construction of the ITER facility.
Circular lens view of the construction of the ITER facility.

According to the physicist, there are no major obstacles to the project, and any outstanding technological and scientific issues are being successfully resolved by researchers. For instance, he said, Russian scientists are currently working on the issue of plasma disruption, a phenomenon in which the reactor’s fuel cools sharply, splashing onto the reactor walls and resulting in significant damage or even the melting of components, thus requiring costly and time-consuming repairs.

“There are signs according to which physicists can discern that a plasma disruption is coming. A technique for predicting breakdowns and preventing their occurrence is under development. Scientists from the [Moscow-based] Kurchatov Institute are creating models of the disruptions and how they can be impacted to mitigate them,” Krasilnikov said.

ITER project scientists calculate that their working experimental generator will generate about 500 megawatts of energy, five times the amount it consumes through its operation. If successful, the experiment will give rise to the DEMOnstration Power Station project, a commercial project whose engineering design is expected to be completed by the mid-2020s on the basis of the experimentation carried out by ITER.

Proponents of thermonuclear power laud it as a clean source of energy compared to traditional sources, and point out that it is not as dangerous as nuclear power. Skeptics suggest however that the technology will remain an expensive alternative to traditional fuels, so long as the latter remain available in significant quantities.

Construction of the structure in which the tokamak will be installed.
Construction of the structure in which the tokamak will be installed.

22 Comments on "Thermonuclear Fusion: How Scientists Hope to Extract Energy of Stars on Earth"

  1. Ghung on Wed, 13th Dec 2017 4:49 pm 

    “Skeptics suggest however that the technology will remain an expensive alternative to traditional fuels, so long as the latter remain available in significant quantities.”

    Laughable. Fusion remains an infinitely more expensive alternative at any price. Nice advertisement though.

  2. Antius on Wed, 13th Dec 2017 5:00 pm 

    Magnetic confinement fusion has poor power density. It will be expensive, even if they can make it work.

    The fission-fusion hybrid is an approach that gets around the weaknesses of a fusion reactor, by using it as a neutron source, rather than a power source.

  3. MASTERMIND on Wed, 13th Dec 2017 5:14 pm 

    Nuclear fusion has a very bright future ahead. And it always will have…

  4. Makati1 on Wed, 13th Dec 2017 5:50 pm 

    Fusion is only 10 years away! Keep sending those checks so we fusion scientists can retire in 8 years. LMAO!

  5. Go Speed Racer on Wed, 13th Dec 2017 6:40 pm 

    The gubbamint researchas dey get
    big paychecks an dey get ta
    chase around da georgeois
    French girls.

    What’s not ta like?

  6. peakyeast on Wed, 13th Dec 2017 7:28 pm 

    I wonder what the combined efforts of developing this has cost the world so far? …

    And I wonder what amount of renewable power could have been purchased and developed for that amount.

  7. Sissyfuss on Wed, 13th Dec 2017 9:20 pm 

    They’re saying an important milestone has been reached, namely the construction of this boondoggle is 50% complete. No, an important milestone would be when any fusion reactor reaches an EROIE of .00000000001 to the positive.. In the meantime we will continue to be assaulted by nonprogress reports from the king of the hopium industries.

  8. GregT on Wed, 13th Dec 2017 9:35 pm 

    “and starting the process of superheating hydrogen atoms to 150 million degrees Celsius – ten times the temperature of the Sun’s core”

    Children, playing with fire. What could possibly go wrong?

  9. dave thompson on Thu, 14th Dec 2017 12:27 am 

    Going under the assumption that one of these oversized, expensive contraptions gets built, how many would it then take to replace what humans now do with FF?

  10. Anonymouse1 on Thu, 14th Dec 2017 6:55 am 

    Controlled fusion, is (will be)….


    and…what was the last one again?, too cheap to meter or something? Oh, no, that was the other ones buzzword. How did that work out btw?

    In lieu of talking about ‘cheap’ fusion fan-boyz have substituted ‘green’, and or imply a fusion powered world would make all our energy related problems and woes, history.

    IoW, fusion proponents are so dishonest and glib, they make the resident shill, cloggen-cohen look like a paragon of honesty and restraint by comparison.

    We are finding nuclear fission to be prohibitively expensive and hugely problematic in countless ways. Nuclear fusion, by comparison is a vastly more complex process. It stands to reason, the problems fusion reactor(s) would create, either for their operators or humanity in general, will be far greater the ones fission is burdening all of us with now.

    Nuclear fusion has not produced one watt of net energy in over 50+ years . The one thing fusion has produced in abundance, is countless articles all making the same false and misleading claims over and over again.

  11. Guistebal on Thu, 14th Dec 2017 7:42 am 

    Let’s face it : even it can work and it’s a good idea, we’ll never achieve it. The orange clown has just cut the US funding ( and the already extended 2035-2040 target will not be respected. So the target of the “real thing” (DEMO), if all the rest goes well, will go far later than the expected initial 2040. Let’s say at least 2050-2060.
    At this time, we’ll have far more other troubles and lost most of our capacities to achieve such a project.

    So, even it’s a good idea in an ideal world, we have to drop this project and focus our capacities on solutions applicable right now.

  12. Antius on Thu, 14th Dec 2017 9:08 am 

    The truth is that just as renewable energy is most useful at stretching the benefits of fossil fuels; so fusion is most useful at stretching the benefits of fission.

    The power density and engineering challenges of fusion, make it a poor choice for a standalone source of power. But most of the energy is chucked out as super-fast neutrons. Guess what those neutrons are really good at? Answer: Fast fission. Isotopes that are abundant but won’t usually fission with slow neutrons, like uranium-238 and thorium-232, will directly fission if hit by neutrons with energy greater than 6MeV. There are quite a lot of advantages to a fission-fusion hybrid.

    1. The most obvious being fuel abundance – an avoidance of the need for a slow breeding cycle to build up stocks of fissionable material;

    2. Fuel fabrication is easy, as all work is with low activity materials and there is no criticality hazard in the fuel fabrication facility. The cost of fabricating new fuel is a serious issue with conventional fast breeder reactors;

    3. Can solve or greatly reduce the waste problem, as oxide or metallic fuels can achieve a burnup of between 20-70%. That means a huge amount of energy per unit of fuel – 3000MW-yr of thermal power would yield 1.3-5tonnes of discharged fuel. That is a lot easier to deal with than the 5-15 times as much spent fuel discharged from a PWR. One can achieve very large energy yields without the need for reprocessing.

    4. The reactor can breed fuel for other reactors, if reprocessing is used;

    5. The fission reaction can be stopped by halting the fusion reaction, which is easy. Power surges like the one that occurred at Chernobyl would appear very unlikely.

    On the downside, a hybrid leaves us with a lot of the inherent problems of fission. It could still melt down if decay heat removal fails. It presents a waste problem, although arguably a smaller one. It could be problematic from a proliferation viewpoint, as it would be an excellent breeder of fissile material.

    That said, if we needed a lot of cheap energy quickly, this is definitely an option we could pursue.

  13. Go Speed Racer on Thu, 14th Dec 2017 10:36 am 

    Thanks for mentioning Mr Antius.
    Interesting concept. Extremely complex,
    even if it was designed, presently no design.

    Still quite the mountain of nuke waste.

    Solid fission fuel is inherently bad. The
    atoms are being changed and this makes
    the fuel structure change, or disintegrate.
    For example some of the byproducts
    are a gas, not a solid.

    This is why fission reactor “rods” are
    only used for 2% of the potential energy
    available. The rods are too messed up
    after that and have to be either reprocessed,
    or tossed into the ravine south of town.

    This is why the liquid fuel designs are
    extremely superior. It happens that
    Thorium makes a great basic cord of
    firewood, to toss into that nuclear stove.

    But since there isn’t any water in a
    liquid fuel reactor, it should have plenty
    fast neutrons. So go ahead, toss in
    a little U-238, a liquid fuel reactor will
    burn that without any difficulty.
    And toss in some old wheelbarrow
    tires, sofa cushions, and some old
    ice cube trays, it will burn all that up too.

    Liquid fuel reactor would probly be
    Simpler better than the Fusion fission
    hybrid because solid fuel doesn’t
    work very well.

    If ya wanna read all about this
    ultimate nuclear bonfire, try this book

    Of course if ya don’t want any
    fascinating new information that
    solves all the worlds problems,
    then don’t bother. Stick with MAD magazine.

    Not to worry, the governments will never
    allow anything to be built which would
    actually solve the problem. That’s their
    Top Rule so they will stick with rusty
    klunky junky fission reactors full of
    water and corroded old radioactive rods.

    Hey that was a Wal Mart book link.
    Good. Amazon needs a pruning down
    to size. They rip off everybody forcing
    them to join Prime, then charging big
    membership fees. Amazon takes up to
    60% of the selling price for themselves.

    Marauders, swindlers, thieves.
    Buy the book from Wal Mart instead.

    Hey that was a

  14. Hello on Thu, 14th Dec 2017 12:04 pm 

    >>Amazon needs a pruning down to size.

    I agree. and that jew Sugerpile (german Zuckerberg), too.

    But I’m not so sure if walmart is the right alternative. 🙂

  15. Antius on Thu, 14th Dec 2017 12:16 pm 

    The integral fast reactor experiments routinely achieved burn up of 30 atom%. This was in metallic fuel with sodium acting as the bonding material between the fuel and cladding.

    Higher burn ups are possible in oxide fuel, but would require vented fuel assemblies to vent fission product gases from the fuel and prevent build up of pressure.

    Liquid (or even gaseous) fuels are also possible. In this case, the reaction chamber would need to be made from nickel alloys and would presumably be surrounded by liquid thorium fluoride and other salts. It would be periodically replaced as corrosion and radiation damage degraded it. Power density could be huge without any real safety problems, because a huge temperature rise would not result in any loss of structure (the fuel is already liquid).

    I would propose muon-catalysed, kinetic impact fusion as a promising candidate technology.

  16. Boat on Thu, 14th Dec 2017 1:11 pm 


    Amazon is an infrastructure killer. A box store elimination machine and job killer. This is good if you want to cut Co2. Now if they could just deliver junk food hot and quick by robot.

  17. Boat on Thu, 14th Dec 2017 1:14 pm 

    Think of the hundreds of billions of dollars wasted by building brick buildings to serve food. Drone me in a taco please.

  18. Anonymouse1 on Thu, 14th Dec 2017 3:09 pm 

    The only dronetard here, boatiemoron, is you. Go back to your coloring book and the flat-screen TV the make-a-wish foundation got for you. The 700 club is probably running all kinds of specials on jezus aimed at the 60-70 IQ demographic this season.

  19. Go Speed Racer on Thu, 14th Dec 2017 4:39 pm 

    Hello Mr Hello,
    Ya well it’s hard to compete against Amazon.
    Probly takes an outfit like Wal-Mart to pay the
    bills and setup shop.
    Bet me and U could rent a brick warehouse over
    on South Street, get a couple computers an
    some packing tape…. bet we will get sunk.
    Probly just buy the Walmart online and
    then we won’t go broke.

    Hi Mr Ants on us, ya even if we came up
    with a great reactor design, they would
    never build it. Gotta keep making those
    Fukushima G.E. disaster models instead.

    They make money on the clean up contracts
    after it melts down.

  20. jh wyoming on Thu, 14th Dec 2017 7:56 pm 

    That gigantic and massively expensive reactor is purely experimental? It won’t produce any energy for France. Hmm, that’s one heck of an expensive experiment. And even if it works they way its intended to, will the 2nd reactor cost just as much? Once this technology is up and running to power countries how much will it cost the end user? $500 or $1,000 a month?

    When it comes to the US the Republicans will want it to be funded privately, so we the consumers will end up with a utility company that keeps transferring its huge costs on to the end user. Then the utility share holders will want more and more money, then bills will go sky high, but we will be told we can’t use our own solar because then the utility costs go too high for the rest of the customers.

    Then the Republicans will make deals with the utility company to screw the consumers over even worse, allowing massive annual increases in rates so the R’s have yet another super wealthy company supporting their campaigns.

    Then the politicians whose campaigns are partly funded by Fusion Energy Inc. will hire those same politicians when they retire to act as lobbyists in DC to help them raise rates even higher and force people to shut up and just friggin take it where the Sun doesn’t shine.

  21. DerHundistlos on Fri, 15th Dec 2017 3:14 am 

    @ jh wyoming

    Yes, indeedy brother. We get the government that reflects who we are as a society. Never in my life could I have imagined a sitting president of the United States refer to a colleague in the legislative branch as a “whore”.

  22. Sys1 on Fri, 15th Dec 2017 2:14 pm 

    Fascinating to witness the best engineers and scientists on Earth desesparately trying to pursue industrial civilisation with this huge experiment, the modern equivalent of Kheops Pyramid in ancient times.

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