For British astrophysicist Arthur Eddington the destination mattered less than the path, as it provided a beacon for breakthroughs along the way. This was the mentality that saw him work out that the sun’s energy comes from the fusion of hydrogen nuclei into helium. The Cambridge scientist’s discovery laid the groundwork for the still-elusive goal of recreating similar energy on earth through nuclear fusion.
For the industry’s critics (and there are many), it is a costly and ineffective journey towards a target that has always been a few decades out of reach. But Eddington – who died in 1944 – would almost certainly have approved of the world’s largest nuclear fusion project: the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor Programme (ITER) in France. The multi-nation programme is massively over-budget (currently estimated at $22.5 billion) and taking years longer than expected to produce anything resembling a result. But it still holds the promise of replacing fission nuclear energy with a safer fusion alternative.
It has been enthusiastically embraced by the Chinese too and a consortium led by China National Nuclear Corp (CNNC) has just been awarded ITER’s Tokamak Assembly Contract 1 (TAC1) – sealing China’s largest nuclear contract in Europe. The consortium will provide the steel structure and other components encasing the Tokamak.
The concept of a Tokamak is nearly 70 years old and was originally conceived by Soviet scientist Andrei Sakharov. A Tokamak is a device that bears a resemblance to a metal doughnut and converts hydrogen isotopes into plasma, releasing energy as they fuse together. Powerful magnets then prevent the plasma from burning apart the reactor’s structure.
No Tokamak has ever been able to satisfy the Lawson criterion, which demands sufficiently hot and dense plasma be effectively confined in a process that creates more energy than is put in. So far, no fusion project has created a net energy increase.
However, the Chinese say they are making advances of their own in developing core technologies like magnetic containment, as well as components that can survive temperatures of over 100 million degrees Celsius.
Last November an Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (EAST) in Anhui province reached 100 million degrees Celsius for the first time and the next prototype plans to triple this temperature later this year.
EAST also holds the record for holding plasma stable for the longest period: 101.2 seconds.
As yet, no Tokamak has been able to beat the Joint European Torus (JET) based at the UK’s Culham Centre for Fusion Energy. Back in 1997, it achieved an output of 16MW from an input of 24MW and is the only Tokamak that utilises both the hydrogen isotopes (deuterium and tritium) as a fuel mix.
Its successor, ITER, aims to produce 500MW on a 50MW input.
Like China, the US has a 9% stake in the project (the largest shareholder is the European Union, with 45%). Previously the Americans had pulled out of the programme for five years but its supporters have persuaded Congress to provide more funding for the industry via a public-private partnership that will go some way to matching the Rmb6 billion ($847 million) that China has spent so far on EAST (a further Rmb6 billion in funding has just been secured).
The race is also on among a number of private sector companies to come up with a more compact and cost-effective fusion reactor than ITER’s. Contenders include: Commonwealth Fusion Systems (a Bill Gates-backed spin-off from MIT), First Light Fusion (an Oxford University offshoot), TAE Technologies (backed by the late Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen), Tokamak Energy Systems (a UK Atomic Energy Authority affiliate) and Vancouver General Fusion (backed by Jeff Bezos).
All of them say they are on course to make the kind of breakthroughs that will achieve net energy production from nuclear fusion by the mid-2020s.
If any of them can then commercialise it, the apocalyptic view of the future propounded by climate activists like Greta Thunberg may yet be averted.
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