In recent years a lot of effort and money has been invested in finding alternatives to fossil fuels, such as solar- or wind power, but until now this is unfortunately still only the peak of the iceberg considering that even in Europe energy consumption from renewable sources contributes 17% to the total energy needed. Located in France, the ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor) could change the way we think about energy generation in a way most of us would never even imagine to be possible…
Since October 2007, 35 countries have decided to actively increase this number by founding one of the biggest research projects that has ever been put into construction. The duration of the construction is scheduled to be completed by 2035. Estimated construction costs were estimated to be $5 billion U.S. dollars, but his number is most likely to be exceedingly higher by the time ITER will be ready.
Basically, ITER is an enormous, complicated, and very costly physical experiment designed to test if a controlled nuclear fusion – an atomic reaction that has been used by Robert Oppenheimer in World War II to build atomic bombs, and the same reaction that is happening all the time on the sun – can be used to generate a huge amount of heat. Heat that could then be used to generate clean and sustainable electricity.
How does it work?
Theoretically it isn’t that hard, you take two isotopes of hydrogen, crush them in each other, and out of a sudden you will get a helium atom and a subatomic particle containing a lot of energy. Albert Einstein knew this already and eternized it in his famous equation E = mc2. The main lesson from this is that a small reduction of mass results in an incredibly high release of energy.
There is only one problem, to create an atomic fusion you need a lot of heat. The fusion that takes place in the center of the sun requires a temperature of 15 million °C, in addition of having this immense gravitational pressure. Without having this pressure, say in fusion machines such as the ITER will have one, it requires ten times more, therefore 150 million °C.
To be able to withstand these incredibly high temperatures, the ITERs fusion will take place in a doughnut-shaped room which is called tokamak. In this chamber the reaction happens, inside a plasma in a cloud of ionized hot atoms in which it can be done but only by incredibly strong fields of magnetism.
Just try to imagine how extremely advanced these materials and technology have to be that will be used there.
The process, step by step:
The process of creating such a huge amount of heat includes basically five steps, mimicing what can be observed at the sun.
In the first step the heating process has to be started. This is done by inducing a current into the plasma, using the central magnet. As a result, the two hydrogen isotopes that are within the plasma start to heat themselves up – the heating process begins.
In the second step the researchers use the magnets outside the plasma chamber to limit the plasma as radio waves as well as microwaves to create the required temperature of 150 million °C.
As soon as this temperature has been reached, and therefore the plasma has its proper density, the isotopes start to collide with each other, which will finally let them fuse. This fusion results in the release of high-energy neutrons. To explain this a bit more in depth: Deuterium and Tritium heated up to a 150 million degrees Celsius collide and fuse, resulting in a Helium atom and one high-energy neutron. (step three)
In step four these neutron start to hit the blanket of the plasma chamber, which converts this high energy into heat. During this process, the Heluim and the impurities are getting removed with the help of a diverted which takes place at the bottom of the chamber.
In the fifth step, which is also the final step, this heat that has been created (assuming that the Project ITER will be successful) will theoretically be used to create a steam that would be directed through a turbine to create rotation, which in the end, will generate electricity.
Overall this project has been enormous complex in every way possible, nevertheless, once the ITER is done, it is planned to product around 1000 megawatts of electricity. Putting that into perception, such a big amount could power roughly 500.000 British houses. Even though 2035 might still seem far ahead for many of us, Dr. Bigot – the general director of the ITER – once said:
“People consider that it’s long,” he said, referring to critics of the project timetable. “But if you want full control of quality, you need time.”