Scientists and engineers have been searching for a clean and efficient energy alternative to fossil fuels for decades and the ITER project just may be the solution.
The largest scientific collaboration on Earth second to the International Space Station, the International Thermoelectric Experimental Reactor intends to utilize the same energy source that powers our Sun and the billions of other stars across the universe.
Conceived as a result of disarmament talks between the United States and the Soviet Union, the design intends to create the first nuclear fusion device that will be capable of achieving net energy; producing more energy than it takes to power the machine.
According to the project’s website, the machine has five main goals:
♦ Produce 500 MW of power
Designed to only need 50 MW of energy input to operate, this fusion machine will potentially produce an energy return that is almost 15 times more efficient than the device that holds the current world record for nuclear fusion power.
♦ Demonstrate the feasibility of large-scale fusion power plants in the future
All of the devices that exist today that utilize nuclear fusion are very small-scale. The ITER device will be similar in size to future power plants and will allow scientists to study and test the technologies needed to safely and efficiently operate one.
♦ Achieve the first plasma reaction that will be sustained through internal heating
In order for the fusion device to remain stable and active for very long periods of time, the heat from the plasma reaction has to be confined efficiently enough so that it can be reused in the continuing reaction.
♦ Test tritium breeding
Tritium does not occur in an extreme abundance in nature, so one of the hopes for this project is that it will be able to produce enough tritium to fuel future power plants worldwide.
♦ Demonstrate how safe this type of energy production can be
ITER was officially licensed as a nuclear operator in France in 2012. While this is a major accomplishment, the hope is that this project will show that there are no major consequences that come along with the production of a plant of this magnitude.
How will it work?
While nuclear power plants today utilize nuclear fission, the process by which atomic nuclei are split to produce energy, the ITER device will use nuclear fusion to generate thermoelectric energy.
Nuclear fusion by definition is a reaction in which atomic nuclei of low atomic number fuse to form a heavier nucleus with the release of energy.
The deuterium-tritium reaction that is planned to be used in the ITER project can be seen above. These two elements have been determined to be the most efficient and ideal fusion reaction in the laboratory setting. When the two molecules conjoin, they produce the most energy while needing the lowest possible temperatures for a fusion reaction.
In order to produce a fusion reaction, a temperature of at least 150,000,000° Celcius must be achieved, the plasma produced must be dense enough to induce atomic collisions, and there must be sufficient confinement time to hold the plasma. This plasma is formed when electrons become separated from nuclei, causing a gas to become plasma.
This plasma is contained by a device known as a tokamak. This device was originally designed during the cold war arms race by the Soviet Union. It utilizes powerful magnetic fields and electromagnets to cool the machine and keep the reaction safe. The energy that is produced is absorbed by the walls of the machine in the form of heat energy and used to create steam that in turn spins a turbine to create electricity.
Construction and the Future
The ITER Project is so immense that the agreement even created its’ own currency known as the “Iter Unit of Account”. This is how the members decided how much each country would have to pay and contribute to the project.
The chosen building site is in Cadarache, France. As of right now according to the organization’s website, “The ground support structure and the seismic foundations are in place and work has begun on the Tokamak Complex–a suite of three buildings that will house the fusion experiments.” While the construction won’t be complete until an estimated 2020’s, this is already becoming one of the largest engineering projects in history.
If the project is successful, it could save our world from its’ reliance on fossil fuels and carbon emitting fuel sources. Not only would it provide clean and efficient energy, it would bring about a new era in energy production.
Harnessing the power of the stars may no longer be something of science fiction, it may be just around the corner.
2005 Decision to site the project in France
2006 Signature of the ITER Agreement
2007 Formal creation of the ITER Organization
2007-2009 Land clearing and leveling
2010-2014 Ground support structure and seismic foundation
2012 ITER becomes a Nuclear Installation under French law
2014-2021* Construction of Tokamak Building
2018-2025* Largest components are transported to ITER
2024-2025* Assembly Phase 1
Start date TBD First Plasma