A vast international experiment designed to demonstrate that nuclear fusion can be a viable source of energy is halfway toward completion, the organization behind the project said Wednesday.
Construction of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, or ITER, in southern France has been dogged by delays and a surge in costs to about 20 billion euros ($23.7 billion).
ITER’s director-general, Bernard Bigot, said the project is on track to begin superheating hydrogen atoms in 2025, a milestone known as ‘first plasma.’
‘We have no contingency plan,’ he told The Associated Press in a phone interview from Paris.
ITER is the most complex science project in human history.
The hydrogen plasma will be heated to 150 million degrees Celsius, ten times hotter than the core of the Sun, to enable the fusion reaction.
The process happens in a donut-shaped reactor, called a tokamak,1 which is surrounded by giant magnets that confine and circulate the superheated, ionized plasma, away from the metal walls.
The superconducting magnets must be cooled to minus 269°C, as cold as interstellar space
Scientists have long sought to mimic the process of nuclear fusion that occurs inside the sun, arguing that it could provide an almost limitless source of cheap, safe and clean electricity.
Unlike in existing fission reactors, which split plutonium or uranium atoms, there’s no risk of an uncontrolled chain reaction with fusion and it doesn’t produce long-lived radioactive waste.
A joint project to explore the technology was first proposed at a summit between U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985, with the aim of ‘utilizing controlled thermonuclear fusion for peaceful purposes … for the benefit for all mankind.’
It took more than two decades for work to begin at the site in Saint-Paul-les-Durance, about 50 kilometers (30 miles) northeast of Marseille.
The project’s members – China, the European Union, India, Japan, South Korea, Russia and the United States – settled on a design that uses a doughnut-shaped device called a tokamak to trap hydrogen that’s been heated to 150 million degrees Celsius (270 million Fahrenheit) for long enough to allow atoms to fuse together.
The process results in the release of large amounts of heat.
While ITER won’t generate electricity, scientists hope it will demonstrate that such a fusion reactor can produce more energy than it consumes.
There are other fusion experiments, but ITER’s design is widely considered the most advanced and practical. Scientists won’t know until 2035, following a decade of testing and upgrades, whether the device actually works as intended.
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