Back in 2006, writing in Science, Daniel Clery discussed “ITER’s $12 billion Gamble”. ITER
, from International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, is a massive, multinational government-level collaboration aiming to prove nuclear fusion
as a potential commercial power source.
Nuclear fusion is the nuclear reaction that powers the sun and other stars, and the hydrogen bomb. Basically, the idea is to fuse atoms of tritium and deuterium, both isotopes of hydrogen, to form helium (and a neutron) as products and generating an enormous amount of energy. The fusion process is described nicely in this video
. Or if you have more time, the BBC’s Horizon also made a nice documentary, which can be viewed here
The process is safe and clean, with virtually unlimited fuel. Illustrations of why this is the case can be found for example in the Wikipedia and video links above, or in many articles floating around such as this one
plugging ITER in Canada.
Fusion is therefore ideal for centralized baseload energy production, and yet it rarely rates even a mention in alternative energy discussion. The reason lies in an old fusion critic’s joke that “Fusion is the energy source of the future – and always will be”. Active fusion research has been going on for over half a century, and as was the case half a century ago, the current prognosis is 30-50 years (depending on who you talk to) before grid power plants come online.
However, should ITER be successful, this is an 'all-bets-are-off', everybody stop worrying and go home-type solution that will truly usher in a New Order of abundant power, and this time around won't run the planet into the ground.
Here is the reason it is such a gamble. The fusion reaction (on Earth) requires plasma
held at temperatures of around 100 million °C. Containing this plasma in which the fusion reaction would take place is the crux of the fusion problem. Containment is most often achieved (and will be by ITER) using the Russian-invented "Tokamak" system (derived from Russian words meaning "Toroidal (donut-shaped) Chamber in Magnetic Coils").
Although this know-how already exists, maintaining control over the hot plasma for periods of time longer than a few seconds is still extremely difficult: Since no material could withstand the temperature, the plasma is contained magnetically, and the stability of the plasma thus contained is extremely fragile.
ITER’s initial challenge is to demonstrate the feasibility of controlling the fusion reaction. Several research labs around the world do this regularly, in short "pulses" that use up more energy than they create. The Tore Supra
Tokamak, in Cadarache, France (the site of the ITER contruction) holds the present record, of about 6 minutes. ITER is banking on their much larger reactor to show at least a ‘road map’ of sorts to operation times on the order of years. They then need to work out how to extract useful energy from the reaction, with the final aim of proposing a design for an actual power plant.
Now that the 12 billion (This over about 20 years, from the combined budgets of China, the EU, India, Japan, Korea, Russia and the USA. A paltry figure really, when you compare it with recent bailouts
) has been signed off on, there is no need for further discussion: as an ITER project leader and physicist Norbert Holtkamp
said in 2006, “…either ITER can do it, or it can’t”.
If not, there are no other $12 billion projects floating around ready to take over – all researchers working on fusion are effectively working for ITER – directly or indirectly, as only a project of this size has a realistic chance of achieving the goal of extracting large quantities of electricity from controlled nuclear fusion reactions in the near future. The ITER site is cleared, excavation will begin this year, and the foundation concrete is due to be poured in 2010.
The dice have been thrown.
Change 2 contributor Dr Miles Page is an Australian scientist who has been working at the international coalface of the emerging Energy Revolution. After receiving his PhD from Sydney University, Dr Page held senior research positions with the Atomic Energy Commission in Paris and the Max Planck Institute in Potsdam. He has spent the past 3 years in Israel researching Thin Film Solar Cells at the Weizmann Institute of Science and developing alternative Fuel Cells.