June 28 - Fusion took a giant step closer to becoming a commercial reality today, as France was selected to host a $13 billion experimental nuclear fusion project that scientists hope will eventually produce a clean, safe and endless energy resource and help phase out polluting fossil fuels. An experimental device called the "International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER)" will be built in France. ITER is hopefully the step that will bridge the gap between today’s studies of plasma physics and tomorrow's electricity-producing fusion power plants. The goal of the project is to demonstrate methods of extracting the power of nuclear fusion. Fusion is the same process that goes on in the center of the sun in which energy is produced when the hydrogen isotopes deuterium and tritium are fused together to form helium, while releasing huge quantities of heat.
The ITER Tokamak, a magnetic containment device, would be the first fusion device to produce thermal energy at levels equivalent to conventional electricity power plants, and would demonstrate the technology necessary for the first prototype commercial fusion power plant. It is based around a hydrogen plasma torus operating at over 100 million °C, and will produce 500 MW of fusion power. It would work by heating isotopes of hydrogen to hundreds of millions of degrees, creating a plasma of charged particles.
The particles would be confined by magnetic fields in the doughnut-shaped Tokamak. There they would collide and fuse, producing high-energy helium nuclei and neutrons. The uncharged neutrons would escape the Tokamak, creating heat that could be used to generate electricity. But the positively charged helium nuclei would be trapped by the magnetic fields and would help sustain further fusion reactions.
It is an international project involving The People's Republic of China, the European Union (represented by Euratom), Japan, the Republic of Korea, the Russian Federation, and the United States of America, under the auspices of the IAEA.
Design of the device has been ongoing for years, with prototypes of several components having been built and tested. The first bids for construction are expected to be awarded next year and the first plasma operation is expected in 2016. If plans progress as expected, officials hope to build a demonstration power plant in Japan around 2040. Officials project that 10-20 percent of the world's energy could come from fusion by the century's end, said Raymond L. Orbach, the U.S. Department of Energy's office of science director.
The project is quite controversial to some, but the expense is easily justified by the vast benefits that could result from the project. Almost inexhaustible amounts of inexpensive energy with little environmental impact are claimed by the proponents. Although we have very serious short term energy problems that must be addressed, long term solutions must also be addressed, lest we face another energy shortage in the last half of this century.
Reuters/CNN, June 30,2005, Is fusion the best way forward?
NewScientist, June 28,2005, Biggest nuclear fusion project goes to France
ITER Fusion Research Collaborative, Official site of the ITER Organization
The International Fusion Project (ITER) US State Department site
DOE website on ITER