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Europe leading the way in fusion energy research

Regions representing over half the world’s population have joined forces to build ITER – the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor – in the hills of Provence, southern France. Image: ITER Organization
Regions representing over half the world’s population have joined forces to build ITER – the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor – in the hills of Provence, southern France. Image: ITER Organization

Nuclear fusion could become the main source of energy in the second half of this century, and Europe is well-positioned to lead the way as long as it manages its resources correctly, according to the people overseeing the research.

‘The world is really looking at us,’ said Professor Sibylle Günter, scientific director of the Germany-based Institute for Plasma Physics, which is coordinating EUROfusion, a new initiative pooling fusion research in Europe due to be officially launched on 9 October. ‘Europe has the opportunity to strengthen its world-leading position here because we have such a broad and well-organised fusion programme.’

Scientists believe nuclear fusion has the potential to meet a large proportion of the world’s energy demand in a cost-effective way. Unlike nuclear fission, which powers the nuclear reactors used today, nuclear fusion does not produce long-lived radioactive waste and is not subject to the same safety concerns.

Instead, nuclear fusion uses the same energy that powers the sun – heating hydrogen atoms to millions of degrees Celsius so that they fuse together into helium, generating energy in the process. However, the big challenge is maintaining the conditions and extremely high temperatures needed for the fusion reaction, and extracting useful heat for electricity generation.

‘Europe has the opportunity to strengthen its world-leading position.’

Professor Sibylle Günter, Scientific Director, Institute for Plasma Physics, Germany

To solve this, regions representing over half the world’s population have joined forces to build ITER – the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor – in the hills of Provence, southern France, in a concerted effort to show that the technology can produce at least ten times more energy than it consumes.

The doughnut-shaped reactor, known as a tokamak, which will burn at ten times the temperature of the core of the sun, is expected to start producing a significant net gain in energy. It should produce a power output equivalent to that of a medium-sized power plant.

The success of ITER is crucial. Once the viability of nuclear fusion as a realistic source of energy has been demonstrated, the idea is to use the lessons from ITER to build a demonstration reactor, known for the moment as DEMO, which is expected to start contributing energy to the power grid around 2050.

DEMO will form the template for fusion reactors that can be built across the world, in theory enabling fusion to meet the world’s energy needs in conjunction with renewable energy such as wind and solar power.

Fusion energy by 2050

With the backing of Europe’s policymakers, scientists and engineers have drawn up a detailed ‘roadmap to the realisation of fusion energy’ whose objective is commercial electricity from fusion by 2050.

EUROfusion will implement a joint programme fully in line with this goal, and has an assured budget of at least EUR 850 million for 2014 to 2018 – about half of which comes from the Horizon 2020 Euratom programme.

This represents a significant change from how fusion research was funded by Euratom in the past, when the focus was support to individual national programmes in order to build up basic competences and know-how across Europe.

EUROfusion will be officially launched on 9 October 2014.

 

‘You just have to imagine what the impacts are for mankind as a whole,’ said Simon Webster, the head of the fusion research unit at the European Commission. ‘It’s absolutely phenomenal what this can deliver when you look at the future needs for energy, the growth of world population, and the growing percentage of energy that will need to be provided by electricity generation. Fusion can tick all these boxes.’

However, energy provision is a political, as well as scientific, decision. Final decisions on DEMO are for the future, once ITER has attained its objectives. Whether this project is an international collaboration like ITER, or whether regions will wish to go it alone remains to be seen. China has already pushed ahead in fusion energy and has developed its own tokamak experiment known as EAST, which is situated in the eastern city of Hefei, and is now planning a more advanced fusion energy test reactor.

‘We could do DEMO in the same way (as the planned new Chinese reactor) and say, “OK we are going to build DEMO, we are open to any collaborations with other parties, but this is how we do it, we need a central team with a budget. If other partners want to join, fine”,’ said Professor Tony Donné, the Programme Manager of EUROfusion.

Challenges

One of the biggest problems facing fusion is the issue of exhaust heat – how to extract useful heat for energy generation. At the moment scientists are developing materials which are tough enough to withstand the the high temperatures and neutron bombardment for long periods of time.

Long-term continuous operation of a tokamak is also an issue, but the EUROfusion programme is also studying an alternative configuration known as a stellarator.

Engineers in Germany recently finished building Wendelstein 7-X, the world’s biggest stellarator, which is now being commissioned prior to the start of operation in 2015.

Whether final commercial reactors take the tokamak or the stellarator design, scientists are confident that fusion can become the world’s leading source of power after 2050, and that people will look back to the roadmap drawn up by Europe’s scientists in 2012. ‘They will be able to see a direct trail from what we are setting up now,’ Webster said.

Timeline showing the main developments in fusion energy since the idea was first proposed:

  • British physicist Francis William Aston first proposed that energy might be released if two hydrogen atoms were fused into helium. During this decade British astronomer Arthur Stanley Eddington proposed that this reaction could be the one which powers the sun.
  • German nuclear physicist Hans Bethe showed that fusion powers the sun, winning him the Nobel Prize in Physics.
  • US physicist Lyman Strong Spitzer began work on the first stellarator device under the codename Project Matterhorn. His work led to the foundation of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory.
  • The United Nations International Conference on the Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy, held in Geneva, Switzerland, heralded the declassification of fusion energy research programmes and the start of international scientific collaboration. The Russian tokamak design takes the lead.
  • The first controlled fusion experiment was successfully completed at the US Los Alamos National Laboratory in the US.
  • US physicist John Nuckolls first outlined the idea of ignition, whereby hot helium made during fusion reheats the fuel and starts more reactions.
  • The Joint European Torus (JET) in the UK, still the largest operating tokamak in the world, achieved the world’s first controlled release of fusion power and later, in 1997, a world record was attained.
  • The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) was announced, which would be a reactor-scale tokamak capable of producing ten times more energy than the power put into the plasma.
  • The ITER international agreement is signed between the EU, China, India, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the US, enabling construction to begin at the agreed site in the south of France.
  • The European Fusion Joint Programme (EUROfusion) is signed between the European Commission and the national fusion research institutes across the EU plus Switzerland. Engineers in Germany complete construction of Wendelstein 7-X, the world’s biggest stellarator. It is due to start initial operation in 2015 and be fully operational by 2019.

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