Some consider it to be the most complex scientific endeavour in human history — harnessing hydrogen fusion power on a massive scale for the benefit of mankind.
If successful, it would represent a revolutionary energy breakthrough, albeit a costly one — US$22.5 billion and counting.
The good news is, the reality of fusion-driven energy has moved one major step further.
A core machine of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), the world’s first fusion device, has entered the installation phase, according to the ITER Organization, CGTN.com reported.
Representatives of the China Nuclear Power Engineering (CNPE)-led consortium signed the Tokamak Assembly contract with Bernard Bigot, ITER Director-General, on September 30 in Beijing.
The contract covers the cryostat and cryostat thermal shield, magnet feeders, the central solenoid, poloidal field and correction coil magnets, and cooling structures and instrumentation, according to the ITER Organization, the report said.
The covered contents constitute the installation of most crucial parts of the ITER Tokamak, whose importance is equivalent to that of the reactor in the nuclear power plant, or the heart in the human body.
Now under construction in Cadarache in southern France, ITER is so far the world’s second largest science and engineering project in construction scale, behind the International Space Station, the report said.
It’s also the largest nuclear engineering contract ever bid on by Chinese companies in the European market, and the first time for Chinese nuclear power enterprises to successfully participate in international scientific projects in the form of general contracting, said Yu Jianfeng, chairman of the China National Nuclear Corporation, parent company of the CNPE.
“It means that China’s general contracting capacity for nuclear power construction forged over 30 years and its international influence of fusion technologies formed over 50 years have been recognized by the international high-end nuclear energy market,” noted Yu.
The multi-billion dollar, 35-nation effort including the United States, Russia, China, India, the European Union, Japan and South Korea and is now on pace after a number of cost overruns and delays.
According to ITER’s plan, the first operational test is scheduled for the year of 2025, while the full operation is slated for 2035.
Fusion is considered the Holy Grail of energy and is what powers our sun. It merges atomic nuclei to create massive amounts of energy — the opposite of the fission process used in atomic weapons and nuclear power plants, which splits them into fragments.
Unlike nuclear fission, fusion emits no greenhouse gases and carries less risk of accidents or the theft of atomic material.
In a world faced with the dilemma of increasing demand for electricity and a worsening environment, the importance to develop clean energy has been raised to an unprecedented level. The action of shifting from fossil fuels to renewable energy has become urgent.
Experts in the field say that a working reactor would only need 11 pounds of hydrogen to generate the energy equivalent of 18,750 tons of coal, 56,000 barrels of oil or 755 acres of solar panels — an amazing feat of science and technology, Forbes reported.
According to The Guardian, the project requires hydrogen plasma to be heated to 150 million C – 10 times hotter than at the sun’s core — a remarkable feat of engineering.
The doughnut-shaped Tokamak reactor is surrounded by giant magnets that take the superheated plasma away from the metal walls of the container. This requires the magnets to be cooled to -269C.
If all goes well, ITER will use hydrogen fusion, controlled by those large superconducting magnets, to produce massive heat energy which would drive turbines — in a similar way to the coal-fired and gas-fired power stations of today — that would produce electricity free from carbon emissions, and at a potentially low cost.