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Fusion: Future or Failure?

Samaiyah Rehman investigates ITER and its efforts to bottle a star.

The same phenomena that fuels the Sun could be used to produce unlimited clean energy to power Earth. This may sound like a dream, but a dream close to reality.

In one of the most pioneering energy projects of the century, 35 partner countries have pooled their financial and scientific resources, and are currently involved in a 35-year collaboration with the aim to generate safe and emission free energy by utilising the principles of nuclear fusion. Based in the South of France, thousands of scientific professionals since 1985 have been working on the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER). Manipulating the tokamak concept of magnetic confinement, ITER aims to hold the title of the world’s largest magnetic fusion device used to harness nuclear power. To put things into perspective, it will be the size of 60 football grounds!

Within the tokamak, high magnetic fields can be used to ‘squeeze’ plasma within a doughnut shaped chamber. In order for the fusion reactions to occur, there must be extremely high conditions of pressure and temperature for the deuterium (D) and tritium (T) nuclei within the chamber to fuse and yield a nuclear energy release. The magnetic fields are controlled by giant superconducting electromagnets that are cooled to almost absolute zero. Conversely, the plasma will be at a temperature of approximately 150 million degrees demonstrating that the heart of ITER will be housing one of the largest temperature gradients in the Universe. Similar to a power plant, the neutron products (from the nuclear reaction) provide the thermal energy required to create steam and eventually generate electricity. This is implemented by the conventional process using generators and turbines.

Should this avant-garde pull through and become triumphant in its efforts in reproducing the Sun’s fuel source, 500MW of power could be produced from 50MW for 300s; shockingly suggesting that the energy output is 10 times greater than the energy input. This completely contradicts the vital law of conservation of energy which has been instilled into our minds since high school but could be a historic breakthrough in energy production.

The real beauty of this innovative project is the way in which many nations have put aside their political differences in order to excel in this revolutionary proposition. Participating nations include China, the European Union, India, Japan, Korea, Russia and the United States. ITER will not only create a sustainably greener Earth by providing a clean unlimited energy source but could also act as a vessel in sedating the political climate - bringing us closer to a utopian world. Chinese President Xi Jinping described the ITER design as “one of the most important international scientific collaborations… embodies the human desire for the peaceful use of fusion energy".

Rather than contributing monetary resources directly to ITER, participating nations will manufacture complete components which will be delivered to Southern France, where the most complex 10-million-piece 3D jigsaw puzzle will be assembled. Quite poetically, ITER translates to “The Way” in Latin and in 2025, where the first plasma stage will be carried out, it will be evident whether “The Way” has indeed been paved in the nuclear power industry.

From Issue 21

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