After decades of research and planning, a group of scientists in France are attempting to achieve the impossible: harnessing the heavens.
They are building a tokamak, a donut-shaped, man-made, artificial star that has the potential to bring the universe down to earth and provide millions of years of clean energy. Is this the dawn of a new era, in which we dominate nuclear fusion and solve the energy dilemma for millennia, or is it just a crackpot pipe dream? Every year we seem to be getting closer to the former.
While it once seemed impossible that we would be able to create, control, and confine plasma hotter than the sun, the development of tokamaks has created, for the first time, a viable avenue for nuclear fusion. Scientists have already been able to create plasma at the necessary ultra hot temperatures necessary. Now they just need to refine the process until they can create more energy than is consumed by the process to create the reactions—something that has never yet been achieved, but is growing closer to becoming a reality each year, thanks to international projects like the one currently taking place in France.
The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), the massive tokamak fusion reactor under construction in Southern France, has been internationally funded with $14 Billion dollars (a number that will continue to rise) in capital. It’s a combined effort by many nations in the European Union along with the United States, Russia, China, India, Japan, and South Korea. The scientists involved anticipate that the groundbreaking machine will make its inaugural run in 2025, 40 years after its inception, which was initiated after a fateful handshake between President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985.
There is a concern, however, that with the new administration in the United States, their annual $400 million contribution may be slashed or stopped altogether thanks to budget cuts and an aversion to investing in renewables. The Energy Collective has reported that President Trump has allotted $63 million for ITER, however, the Senate’s official budget does not publicly account for ITER funding at all.
Despite a new reluctance from the federal government, under past administrations the U.S. has been on the cutting edge of the technology that could help make the tokamak-based nuclear fusion a reality. Just this month the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) have completed new simulations to study the behavior of these plasma bubbles and blobs, giving us a great understanding of how the heat moves and changes within the tokamak.
In order to fuse hydrogen atoms into helium, tokamaks must maintain the astronomical level of heat of the plasma (the hottest state of matter) they control. This is a particular challenge due to the percolating bubbles that arise and release this vital heat (think of boiling water). In order to function, a tokamak needs to maintain a temperature of around 100 million degrees Celsius.
In future simulations, the PPPL also plans to study how this behavior changes according to the shape of the tokamak, as well as the effects of density, temperature, and electromagnetic force affect the behavior of the blobs, crucial information in the development of the ITER.
The UK is also gunning to be a major player in the development of nuclear fusion, and is currently working on designs for their own nuclear fusion power plant. Just this month it was announced that Atkins will partner with Tokamak Energy to create what they hope will be the world’s first fusion facility (although it will be completed more or less at the same time as France’s internationally-funded model) that generates more energy than it consumes. They aim to generate the first electricity by 2025 (the same year as ITER) and commercially viable fusion power by 2030.
Despite our tricky history with nuclear power, fusion holds the most promising (if not the only) viable future for clean and renewable energy worldwide. Despite popular belief, fusion actually holds little danger relative to traditional nuclear power, producing no long-lasting radioactive waste. Working as a complement to wind and solar, nuclear fusion would bring us much, much closer to creating a carbon-neutral planet, a goal that has never been more urgent.
By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com
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