Teams working on two continents have marked similar milestones in their respective efforts to harness a key energy source for the fight against climate change: they have each produced very impressive magnets. On Thursday, scientists at the international thermonuclear experimental reactor in southern France took delivery of the first part of a massive magnet so powerful that its American manufacturer claims it can lift an aircraft carrier.
Almost 60 feet (nearly 20 meters) high and 14 feet (over four meters) in diameter when fully assembled, the magnet is a crucial part in 35 nations’ attempt to harness nuclear fusion.
Scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a private company separately announced this week that they have also taken a major step forward with the successful test of the world’s most powerful high-temperature superconducting magnet, which could enable the team to overtake ITER in the race to build a “sun”. on earth.’
Unlike existing fission reactors which produce radioactive waste and sometimes catastrophic fusions, proponents of fusion say it offers a clean and virtually unlimited supply of energy. If, that is, scientists and engineers can figure out how to exploit it, they have been working on the problem for almost a century.
Workers receive a central solinoid magnet for the ITER project in Saint-Paul-Lez-Durance, France. (Photo: AP)
Rather than dividing atoms, fusion mimics a process that occurs naturally in stars to fuse two hydrogen atoms and produce one helium atom, as well as a large amount of energy.
Achieving fusion requires unimaginable amounts of heat and pressure. One approach to achieve this is to transform hydrogen into an electrically charged gas, or plasma, which is then controlled in a donut-shaped vacuum chamber. This is done using powerful superconducting magnets such as the “center solenoid” that General Atomics began shipping from San Diego to France this summer.
Scientists say ITER is now 75% complete and they aim to start the reactor by early 2026.
“Each completion of a major and unique component – such as the first center solenoid module – increases our confidence in our ability to complete the complex engineering of the complete machine,” said the ITER spokesperson. , Laban Coblentz.
The ultimate goal is to produce ten times more energy by 2035 than it takes to heat the plasma, proving that fusion technology is viable. Among those hoping to beat them for the price is the Massachusetts team, which said they managed to create a magnetic field twice that of ITER with a magnet about 40 times smaller.
Scientists at MIT and Commonwealth Fusion Systems have said they may have a device ready for everyday use in the early 2030s. “This was designed to be commercial,” said MIT Vice President Maria Zuber , an eminent physicist. “This was not designed to be a science experiment.”
The ultimate goal is to produce ten times more energy by 2035 than it takes to heat the plasma, proving that fusion technology is viable.
Although not designed to generate electricity on its own, ITER would also serve as a model for similar but more sophisticated reactors if successful. Proponents of the project argue that even if it fails, the countries involved will have mastered technical skills that can be used in other fields, from particle physics to designing advanced materials that can withstand the heat of the sun.
All the nations contributing to the project – including the United States, Russia, China, Japan, India, South Korea, and much of Europe – are sharing the $ 20 billion cost and benefiting jointly generated scientific results and intellectual property. The center solenoid is just one of 12 great US contributions to ITER, each built by US companies, with funds allocated by Congress for jobs in the United States.
“To have the first module delivered safely to the ITER facility is such a triumph, because every part of the manufacturing process had to be designed from scratch,” said John Smith, director of engineering and projects at General Atomics.
The company has spent years developing new technologies and methods for manufacturing and moving magnetic parts, including coils weighing 250,000 pounds, at its facilities and then around the world.
“The engineering know-how that has been established during this time will be invaluable for future projects of this scale,” said Smith. “The goal of ITER is to prove that fusion can be a viable and economically practical source of energy, but we are already looking at the sequel,” he added. “This is going to be the key to making the merger work commercially, and now we have a good idea of what needs to happen to make it happen.”
Betting on nuclear power – first fission and then fusion – is still the world’s best chance to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050, said Frederick Bordry, who oversaw the design and construction of another devilishly complex scientific machine, the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. .
“When we talk about the cost of ITER, it’s peanuts compared to the impact of climate change,” he said. “We will have to have the money for this.”