Take a first peek at the huge project to build a star on Earth
Scientists are working in the south of France to create limitless energy through the world’s largest fusion experiment
Out from the pale gold sand of Provence, sheets of steel and concrete are reaching towards the sun. The people here are neither poets nor dreamers, but all are hoping to create a star on Earth.
These are scientists and engineers who believe this dusty construction site holds the world’s greatest hopes of creating limitless energy. It is here that the most advanced fusion energy project is under way.
“As a scientist I have been looking for this technology for several decades,” says Bernard Bigot, head of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, or Iter. “If we succeed it will be a real breakthrough for the world’s energy, not only in this century but for millions of years.”
Fusion is the fundamental energy of the universe, perpetually powering the sun and stars. The extreme heat and gravity at their core cause a collision of nuclei and a violent burst of energy. The desire to recreate and control this atomic energy on Earth is the stuff of science fiction and wild ambition, but the Utopian promise of the sun’s boundless energy is closer than ever before.
At the Saint-Paul-lès-Durance site, Iter (meaning “the way” in Latin) is building the world’s largest fusion experiment to forge a path towards a new dawn of clean, safe, near-limitless power from 2025. The steel and concrete superstructures in the hills of southern France will house a 23,000-ton machine, known as a tokamak, capable of creating an earthbound star. To recreate its fiery core without the same gravitational pull of the sun, scientists will heat a ring-shaped vacuum chamber to 270 million degrees Fahrenheit, 10 times hotter than the sun’s core.
Inside this chamber two types of hydrogen atoms will collide with enough force to fuse in a superheated plasma at the highest temperatures in the universe. Scientists will keep this atomic soup suspended away from the reactor walls using the force field of a magnet cage created by a coil of the world’s most powerful magnets. To withstand the heat these will be supercooled to the temperature of deep space, near absolute zero or minus 450F.
Building a structure to contain mankind’s most advanced scientific experiment requires the combined efforts of more than 30 countries and many thousands of scientists from Iter’s core members; the European Union, China, India, Japan, South Korea, Russia and the US. In an assembly hall on the 42-hectare site, the building blocks of this mega-experiment, shipped in from all over the globe, lie in various states of undress: a steel pillar from Romania has been erected near another from Bulgaria, while workers from India’s Iter team quietly toil on their country’s contribution.
The project is an example of almost unprecedented international co-operation and diplomacy. It is rooted in idealism; that collaboration can yield results better than competition, and that sharing knowledge will mean that no country is left behind in the race to build their own stars.
The diplomatic bureaucracy threatened to upend the project altogether, and political tensions continue to quietly simmer. Bigot took the helm of Iter four years ago, tasked with rescuing the project from putting high-minded internationalism ahead of efficiency and progress. At the time Iter was beset by delays and spiralling costs. The setbacks were frostily received by sceptical European taxpayers, and independent audits warned the project was on the path to failure.
“We have seen a lot of change,” Bigot says. “Everyone is now complying with new best standards for project management. The atmosphere of the project has completely changed too. People believe that fusion is on track. Before it was almost a dream. The next few years will be critical to reinforce the trust we have in our capacity to deliver.”
A matter of time
It is already more than 30 years since the first talks to recreate the hydrogen collision of the stars on Earth began. The world’s most ambitious energy project will require at least another generation of unprecedented international co-operation before the first fusion power electrifies an energy grid.
“I am realistic. I know that this technology is challenging. If we succeed it would be a major breakthrough, so we must accept that this will take time,” says Bigot.
By 2025 they expect to start the first milestone experiments to prove that fusion technology can produce 10 times more energy than it uses. The second iteration, which is hoped to produce fusion electricity for the first time, will begin a decade later. It will be in the second half of the century before working power projects can emerge.
The challenge ahead is threefold, explains Bigot. It lies in keeping the contributions of 35 countries, and 500 companies, carefully aligned to its schedule. This must be followed by painstaking assembly of the component parts on site in France.
Finally, and crucially, the challenges are political. The backlash of globalisation, and rise of national protectionism, has major implications for the tightly bound internationalism underpinning global fusion endeavours. For almost three years Brexit has rippled through Iter. As part of the EU, the UK works on tandem fusion projects to help spur a synergy of global projects in support of Iter. Britain’s efforts first began in 1983 at the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy in Oxford, which has helped forge a leading role in the global fusion race. This is where UK scientists are carrying out work on the Joint European Torus (Jet) project being used to help the development of Iter, and about 350 European fusion scientists carry out research as well.
The Culham fusion lab relies heavily on the EU for funding for its research. An 11th-hour agreement brokered by the UK Atomic Energy Authority between the UK and European Commission, unveiled on Friday, narrowly avoided the need for a treasury bailout by securing €100m in funding for Culham for the next two years. A cohesive European approach that includes the UK is considered the surest way to ensure the world’s power stars supply clean, safe energy in Europe. It is also a defensive strategy against the chance that fusion will be achieved outside the EU, forcing a new energy dependence for the coming century.
Tony Donné, of EUROfusion, says the Iter project will carefully manage the sharing of intellectual property at the end of each research phase, particularly with Europe’s fusion rivals in the East. The Chinese government is pouring its vast national resources into its own race to create an artificial sun. About 3,000 engineers are working to speed the development of fusion power projects. For the first time, late in 2018, its own fusion project achieved a plasma temperature of 180 million degrees Fahrenheit, marking a key step in China’s future fusion reactor experiment.
“We are very careful with intellectual property rights because in certain areas we are further along than the Chinese. We are very careful in what we share with China, and also Korea and India. We don’t want to be in a situation where we have to buy the fusion of the future from the Chinese,” says Donné.
Johannes Schwemmer, the director of the EU’s Fusion4Energy, is clear: China can do this on its own. “They are open to collaborating, but we should not forget that this is also a race to enable our science and industry in Europe to build this technology. We are not only doing this for all of mankind, but also for Europe. We want to be able to have the ability to build these machines, and not rely on China,” he says.
Getting it ‘in a bottle’
Fusion power will come too late to meet the EU’s climate targets, enshrined in the Paris Agreement, or help avoid expert forecasts of the devastating effects of climate change within the next 30 years.
It was American environmentalist Bill McKibben who first warned that in the battle against global warming, winning slowly is the same as losing. The scientists looking to the stars believe the prize is still worth playing for even if the 2050 targets are lost. Without fusion, says Schwemmer, there are fundamentally no new energy ideas: “All other options are basically optimisations of existing technology; you can improve energy storage to make use of renewables, or save energy. And we must. But if you look around the universe, energy is produced by fusion. We can see that the sun works – it’s getting it in a bottle that is difficult.”
– © Telegraph Media Group Limited (2019)