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A fusion future

A fusion future thumbnail

Laban Coblentz, Head of Communication, ITER gives an absorbing insight into all things fusion and the future of fusion energy

From its earliest history, the human animal, among all species, has been the most ambitious to dominate its environment: to conquer the earth, the seas, the skies, and – more than half a century ago – making its first forays into space. If Elon Musk and other visionaries have their way, humans will soon become an interplanetary species.

Harnessing nuclear fusion is an equally ambitious goal, but in reverse: bringing a star to Earth. Fusion accounts for more than 99% of the energy of the universe. The fusion reaction powering our Sun at its core – 600 tons of hydrogen converted every second – is our engine of sustained light and heat: the source of all life on our planet. But the Sun accomplishes this feat using gravitation – 300,000 times that of Earth – and a temperature of 15 million degrees. The puzzle of how to replicate this phenomenon, how to “create a star on Earth” as a controlled energy source, has been a science and engineering quest for more than six decades. Many methods have been tried.

The front-runner, by a good measure, is the Tokamak: a toroidal or doughnut-shaped vacuum chamber encasing a second, invisible cage formed by magnetic fields. A gaseous soup made of two forms of hydrogen – deuterium and tritium – is injected into the chamber and heated until it becomes plasma: the fourth state of matter, with the electrons stripped away from their nuclei.

At a temperature of 150 million degrees, 10 times hotter than the core of the sun, the speed of these hydrogen nuclei overcomes their natural repulsion, allowing them to collide and fuse. Two new products result in helium and a neutron so energised that, in free space, it would reach the moon in less than 9 seconds.

In a commercial Tokamak, these intense bursts of energy will heat water and drive a turbine to generate electricity.

Fusion energy is desirable because of its near-perfect characteristics. Fusion releases no carbon or other greenhouse gases. The fusion reaction, while difficult to create, is inherently safe; unlike nuclear fission, there is no possibility of a Chernobyl or Fukushima-style meltdown. Nor does a fusion reactor produce any high-activity, long-lived radioactive waste.

And fusion energy is incredibly concentrated. Consider this: if the world were entirely powered by coal, at current consumption rates, it would require 24 billion tonnes per year; if powered by fusion, the same output would take a mere 867 tonnes of hydrogen.

Best of all, fusion fuel is abundant. Deuterium is easily extracted from seawater, and lithium, used in the Tokamak to breed tritium, is similarly plentiful. This translates to millions of years of supply. With this fuel accessible to every region and country, fusion visionaries foresee a transformed geopolitical landscape, an energy-rich global community unscarred by conflicts over access to petroleum resources.

Since the Russian invention of the Tokamak in the 1950s, hundreds of successively larger Tokamaks have been built and operated. The science and engineering challenges have largely been overcome, their solutions proven. What remains is to demonstrate and study a “burning plasma,” meaning a plasma that is largely self-heated by fusion.

In fusion physics, the critical parameter is referred to as “Q”: the ratio of thermal output from fusion power versus the thermal input power used to start up the plasma. With all other factors equal, Q is directly proportional to the size of the Tokamak vacuum chamber.



Which brings us to ITER: the first full-scale Tokamak, a project of 35 countries now taking shape in the picturesque heart of Provence in southern France. ITER will have a Q of 10 or greater: 50 megawatts of thermal power heating the plasma to produce, via fusion, a thermal output power of 500 megawatts or more. The ITER mission is to demonstrate the feasibility of fusion on a commercial scale through the production and study of this burning plasma.

Arguably, ITER is the most challenging science and engineering project humans have ever attempted. ITER’s superconducting magnets, some as large as 24 metres in diameter, will be supercooled with liquid helium to -269°C, the temperature of interstellar space. A few metres away, the resulting magnetic cage will keep the superheated plasma – the hottest point in the universe – away from the walls.

“ITER,” in Latin, means “the way”; and the complicated multinational collaboration at the heart of the ITER Agreement is seen by many as foreshadowing “the way” that future ‘big science’ must adapt to be successful. Each ITER Member supplies most of its financial support in the form of components: massive, delicate pieces of the Tokamak and support systems that must be shipped to Provence and assembled into this intricate, supersized fusion platform.

ITER’s complexity demands extraordinary managerial and systems engineering performance; but the resulting benefits – new industrial expertise, spin-offs, and groundbreaking innovation in fields as diverse as materials science, robotics, electromagnetics, cryogenics, vacuum systems, and power electronics – accrue mutually to each of ITER’s partners.

The ITER worksite is abuzz. Massive structures are emerging from the ground. Giant components are arriving weekly. Fast-paced construction has been proceeding for several years, and the assembly phase begins in 2019, with the operational machine – “First Plasma” – on schedule for December 2025. Stay tuned.


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13 Comments on "A fusion future"

  1. onlooker on Tue, 21st Nov 2017 4:24 pm 

    Fusion’s future is always bright and always the future enuf said

  2. dave thompson on Tue, 21st Nov 2017 5:33 pm 

    Does anyone take fusion seriously anymore and actually read articles like this?

  3. Anonymouse1 on Tue, 21st Nov 2017 7:59 pm 

    RoFL, fusion , elon musk ‘visionary’…..hahahah……

  4. Sissyfuss on Tue, 21st Nov 2017 8:49 pm 

    Oh c’mon. We weren’t due for another ” fusion is only 10 years away,” article for at least 6 months. I’ve been keeping count.

  5. Makati1 on Tue, 21st Nov 2017 9:38 pm 

    The sun has another 4+ billion years of fusion energy. Eating plants and animals that grow from sunshine. THAT is as close as humans will ever get to fusion energy.

    These guys are just collecting a paycheck from the uneducated. A few more years and they can all retire and say: “Sorry folks, but it was all a scam. Thanks for the ride. We made a good living and played with expensive toys.”


  6. Makati1 on Wed, 22nd Nov 2017 2:33 am 

    How about a fission future?

    “The British Ministry of Defence (MoD) has published several reports over the last few years. They discuss geopolitics and related themes, one of which is the likelihood of nuclear war or accident, including what it means for long-term survival.

    Experts say that even a so-called limited exchange or accident would be catastrophic. For example, a recent paper in Earth’s Future calculates that the most optimistic scenario of a “small,” regional nuclear war between India and Pakistan would wipe out millions of people through famine and result in a nuclear winter. An exchange between the USA and Russia, for instance, could be even bigger and more devastating.”

    “The risk of Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) use will endure; indeed increase, over the long term.”

    Nuff said.

  7. Anonymouse1 on Wed, 22nd Nov 2017 3:05 am 

    So, the British Ministry of War concluded a nuclear war between the US and Russia would be pretty bad huh?

    Glad to hear they still have people smart enough @ Britain’s MoW to have figured that out all by themselves. Or maybe they help? Either way, hat tip to all the geniuses there at the defen… War Ministry.

    Fooking idjits.

  8. Davy on Wed, 22nd Nov 2017 6:56 am 

    Widdle, FYI, mad kat got this off Zero Hedge. I thought Zero Hedge was disinformation and your best buddy is going there routinely and you say nothing to him. LMFAO
    “Doomsday Scenarios: UK’s Hair-Raising Admissions About Prospects Of Nuclear War (Or Accident)”

  9. Doug on Wed, 22nd Nov 2017 1:03 pm 

    Even if fusion succeeds, what are you going to do with all those nasty neutrons running into everything around it?

  10. onlooker on Wed, 22nd Nov 2017 1:58 pm 

    And if fusion it will enhance our ability to survive , reproduce and consume more not something any human should look forward to

  11. Mark on Wed, 22nd Nov 2017 3:21 pm 

    We’re going to merge our brains into robot bodies and then use fusion powered spaceships to sail the stars! 🙂

  12. Anonymouse1 on Wed, 22nd Nov 2017 7:42 pm 

    Sounds like the problems been solved already. Well simply migrate to other planets in robo-bodies to escape from all the neutron radiation our fusion plants emitted. All this was done, of course, in order to avert, the ever-looming, ‘energy crisis.'(tm)

    The crisis being, we are staggeringly inefficient @ producing energy and, and even more so when it comes to utilizing it.

    Thus trying to build staggeringly complex, costly, and inefficient fusion stations, is a perfect way to try to solve our desire to have as much energy to waste as humanly possible.

  13. Go Speed Racer on Thu, 23rd Nov 2017 12:58 pm 

    Fusion works great.
    It regularly takes 5,685 individual loose
    taxpayer dollars floating freely in a vacuum,
    then under immense bureaucratic heat and
    pressure in a twisting toroidal field matrix
    The 5,685 taxpayer dollars fuse together
    into one single paycheck for s government
    researcher. The resulting explosion of
    light and energy is related very regularly
    every two weeks, releases a great flowing mass
    of tweed sport jackets, Volvo cars and
    close-to-campus English style houses.

    Fusion works perfectly to fuse loose scattered
    taxpayer dollars into paychecks and it always did
    and it always will.

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