Humanity has been using a huge nuclear fusion reactor that generates more energy that we could use in one year in just one minute. The reactions in its core produce plasma at a temperature of 15.5 million degrees centigrade. It has worked for billions of years and will continue for a few more. However, a distance of 150 million kilometers separates this energy source from Earth. We call it the Sun.
At its core, the Sun’s fusion reactions transform hydrogen into helium, which generates the energy. Part of this energy reaches Earth and here it has given life to plants, the wind, the seas… the entire planet.
If we had a fusion reactor like the Sun (much smaller, but equally efficient), we could take a huge step in the transition to sustainable energy. And we are already moving in that direction.
From France to the world
We took a step forward. The world’s largest project for a nuclear fusion reactor is already being assembled, which will take five years. Once complete, the installation could start to generate the superhot “plasma” required for energy fusion.
The facility, with an estimated cost of €20 billion, has been under construction in Saint-Paul-lez-Durance, in the south of France. Its proponents say fusion could be a clean and limitless source of energy that would help tackle the climate crisis.
The project was called ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor). It is a collaboration between China, the European Union, India, Japan, South Korea, Russia, and the United States. All members share the cost of construction.
Fusion or fission reactor
Currently, nuclear energy depends on fission, in which a heavy chemical element splits to produce lighter elements. This is the principle used for the atomic bomb an applied to the reactors we know nowadays.
However, this process generates high radiation levels. In order to understand the risks, we need just two examples: Fukushima and Chernobyl.
Nuclear fusion, on the other hand, works by combining the lighter elements to create a heavier element. This releases large amounts of energy with very little radioactivity. Nonetheless, the tests, thus far, have not managed to resolve two great obstacles: its scarce efficiency and great instability.
ITER will help
Basically, ITER will confine the hot plasma inside a structure known as tokamak, with the purpose of controlling the fusion reactions. The goal of this project will be to demonstrate whether fusion can be commercially viable.
The installation could start to generate plasma, a theoretical start of operations, shortly after the end of the assembling phase in 2025.
Faith in the future
French president Emmanuel Macron, and leaders from the EU, China, India, Japan, Korea, Russia, and the United States, officially announced the beginning of a new energy era with the start of the assembly on Tuesday.
President Macron said the effort would unite nations for a common good: “ITER is clearly an act of confidence in the future. The greatest advances in history have always proceeded from daring bets, from journeys fraught with difficulty. “At the start it always seems that the obstacles will be greater than the will to create and progress.
“At the start it always seems that the obstacles will be greater than the will to create and progress. ITER belongs to this spirit of discovery, of ambition, with the idea that, thanks to science, tomorrow may indeed be better than yesterday.”
“I sincerely congratulate the ITER project. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said. “I believe this innovation will play a key role in solving global problems, including climate change and achieving a sustainable carbon-free society,” said Shinzo Abe, Prime Minister of Japan.”
The scientists in charge of the project say that fusion is safe, uses minimal amounts of fuel, and there is no possibility of a leak that would cause an accident.
The launch of the assembly phase was possible thanks to components that arrived from all over the world in recent months. According to the team in charge of the work, this evidences the will of the 35 partners of the ITER international research project to unite in their common fight against climate change.
The ITER plant will produce around 500 megawatts of thermal energy. If operated continuously and connected to the electrical grid, it would translate into about 200 megawatts of electrical power, enough for around 200,000 homes.
A commercial fusion plant will be made with a slightly larger plasma chamber, to generate 10-15 times more electrical energy. A 2,000 megawatt fusion plant, for example, could supply electricity to 2 million homes.
A fusion reactor does not contain carbon. It does not release CO2. But the benefit of fusion in the fight against climate change depends on how fast these energy plants are installed.
More than 70% of CO2 emissions come from energy usage, and more than 80% of energy usage generates from fossil fuels.
“Most of us came to fusion to change the world – to make a massive difference to how we provide clean energy to future generations…” Ian Chapman, Chief Executive of the U.K.’s Atomic Energy Authority said.
However, fusion power has its detractors and thus making it seem commercially viable has been difficult because scientists have struggled to obtain enough energy from the reactions.
For more information, check Energía16