It is one of mankind’s most daring experiments – a quest to produce virtually limitless clean energy that, if successful, would revolutionise life on Earth by harnessing the explosive power of the sun.
The energy problems that already beset our species, and look certain to dominate the future, would be wiped out at a stroke. The pollution of fossil fuels would be a thing of the past. The oil beneath the Gulf of Mexico could remain, safely unmolested.
Such is the appeal of the idea that the greatest powers of the world, China, India, Japan, South Korea, Russia, America and the nations of the European Union, have united to pursue the same stellar objective. Their aim is commercially viable nuclear fusion – deriving energy from crushing together the nuclei in atoms rather than splitting them, as is done currently in nuclear fission reactors.
“The fundamental critique of fusion,” he says, “is that it is 40 years away and always has been. We are continuing to put large quantities of money into something that may not deliver.”
But at Iter, which is due to be built in southern France, scientists insist commercial fusion is possible – and that when it is harnessed, the impact will be as revolutionary as promised.
“The challenges are extraordinary, but we want a pay-off at the end,” says David Campbell, deputy head of Iter’s Fusion, Science and Technology department. “I’m confident that Iter will emerge. From simple fuels like seawater, fusion produces huge amounts of energy with no long-lived radioactive by-products. In the long term, it could take over electricity generation.”
It is this prospect of “something for nothing” that, like the gold-producing alchemy of old, is beguiling. Energy from seawater – who wouldn’t invest?
The difference is that, unlike alchemy, nuclear fusion is a proven scientific fact. It has been happening, on a small scale, at a research centre outside Oxford since 1991.
I'm glad they're finally breaking ground. But I wish I didn't have to wait so long for this research facility to be up and operating.
Also, I wonder if the results that NIF achieves this year and next will have any bearing on Iter's construction or operation?