If things go as planned, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) will take one more step towards becoming the world’s first operational nuclear fusion reactor this summer when scientists carry out its inaugural tests.
Nuclear fusion has traditionally been used as the basic scientific principle behind thermonuclear warheads. But the same technology that powers our weapons of mass destruction could, in theory, be harnessed to power our cities. It would be the first fusion reactor capable of producing more energy than is needed to operate.
If we can safely build and operate fusion reactors, we could almost certainly solve the global energy crisis for good. But that’s a big if.
Fusion is difficult
When the nuclei of two atoms merge, they release an incredible amount of energy. The big idea behind a fusion reactor is to use a relatively small amount of energy to release an immense amount of it. This is how the sun and other stars work – which is why they are so bright and give off such amounts of heat.
Recreating the cosmos in a lab is an incredibly complex task, but it basically comes down to finding the right materials for the job and figuring out how to force the reaction we want on useful scales.
ITER could change everything
Scientists do not expect to start low-power operations at the ITER site before 2025. Initial testing begins in June, however.
This summer, EUROfusion researchers will launch the Joint European Torus (JET), a separate experiment designed to refine the fuel and material requirements of the ITER experiment ahead of its imminent launch.
The main difference between JET and ITER is in the scale. In fact, while JET came first, the design of ITER has become an essential part of the JET experience. Scientists shut down JET for several months in order to redesign it to work with the ITER project.
In this way, JET is a kind of proof of concept for ITER. If all goes well, it will help researchers solve important issues like fuel consumption and optimization of reactions.
But fusion is difficult
Solving nuclear fusion isn’t all about mixing fuel, but it’s really the bottom line. The conditions for a controlled nuclear fusion are much more difficult to achieve than, say, simply making a warhead with it exploding. However, this is more of a technical and technical problem than a security problem.
Theoretically, nuclear fusion reactors are completely safe. The type of hazardous radiation or reactor meltdown situations that can occur with fission are, for the most part, not possible with fusion.
The real problem is that it has to be done just right to produce enough energy to be of use. And, of course, it needs to be controlled so as not to overproduce. It’s easy to do if you imagine the one-to-one scale fusion of the cores. But even modern supercomputers struggle to simulate fusion at scales large enough to be useful.
Once JET kicks off this summer, we will have the opportunity to tackle some of these issues. And then, in 2025, ITER will begin a ten-year service cycle where it will run on low-power hydrogen reactions.
During this time, scientists will monitor the system while simultaneously exploring a multidisciplinary approach to solving the various engineering problems that arise. At the heart of these efforts will be the creation of machine learning systems and artificial intelligence models capable of powering the simulations needed to scale fusion systems.
Finally, in 2035, when the ITER team has enough data and information, they will swap the reactor fuel source for hydrogen for deuterium and tritium, two atoms that have a lot more punch.
If all goes according to plan, we could be decades away trading the global energy crisis for fusion-fueled abundance.
Published March 23, 2021 – 22:54 UTC