‘ITER miracle’ keeps fusion project going — despite COVID-19

Source: By Nathanial Gronewold, E&E News reporter • Posted: Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Main assembly of the world’s largest fusion energy experiment is now underway.

Dignitaries from around the world marked the milestone yesterday during a ceremony held in the south of France, home to the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, or ITER.

The ambitious project aims to mirror the process that fuels stars in an attempt to develop large-scale, carbon emissions-free energy to power the world.

Crews have spent years laying the base and foundation, and they now can begin assembling the machine itself.

President Emmanuel Macron of France, U.S. Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette and other government representatives sent video messages to celebrate the occasion, accomplished amid the global COVID-19 pandemic.

ITER officials say that so far, no one working directly on the project has tested positive for the COVID-19 virus. ITER Director-General Bernard Bigot called it “the ITER miracle.”

Thirty-five nations are collaborating to put ITER together, including all members of the European Union and seven other countries. The final price tag is unknown, but ITER has offered a range estimate of $13 billion to $22 billion. Member states are committed to in-kind contributions of components, thus costs depend on where governments procure the manufacturing for the machine’s parts, Bigot explained, pointing out how building a component in India would cost significantly less constructing the same part in California.

Leaders spoke of their hope that ITER could lead to a powerful response to global warming. Macron characterized fusion as the next step in the development of nuclear energy and said it is critically important that the project succeed.

The French president called the massive multinational endeavor “a promise of peace.”

“We will have developed a new form of energy that is nonpolluting, carbon free, safe and practically without waste, an energy that will answer the needs of populations in all parts of the world, meet the challenges of climate change, and preserve natural resources,” Macron said. “With fusion, nuclear energy can be an industry of the future even more so than it is already today.”

Once complete, project managers believe, the machine will consist of more than 1 million components. Pieces still are being manufactured, including parts of the central magnet that is being built in California.

Bigot said that yesterday’s event heralded the start of the final assembly of the tokamak, the core of the machine that will contain fusion reactions.

“It is a first-of-a-kind machine made up of many first-of-a-kind components and breakthrough inventions,” Bigot said.

Within the tokamak, ITER is designed to superheat hydrogen into a plasma that will reach temperatures hotter than the center of the sun — igniting a fusion reaction that scientists must carefully control and sustain. The heat of the plasma would vaporize any substance on Earth, including the walls of the tokamak itself, so the plasma will be contained by a powerful magnetic field generated by the world’s most powerful superconducting electromagnets.

Generating the fusion reaction will consume mass quantities of energy, but ITER project managers say they will gain 10 times the amount of energy in return.

The process of fusing hydrogen atoms produces a highly energetic storm of free neutrons, which could be used to convert water to steam that would power turbines to generate electricity. ITER never will be a power plant itself, but rather, it’s being designed to work out the system’s engineering.

The current timeline sees main ITER assembly finished by 2024, with “first plasma” to be achieved sometime in 2025.

Brouillette credited ITER with inspiring a new wave of fusion-related private-sector research and development in the United States.

“The ITER effort has also helped to renew enthusiasm and optimism about the commercial promise of fusion energy,” Brouillette said. “Several startup companies across North America have been established in recent years to explore potential new concepts for fusion energy, and we’ve engaged with a number of them in the hope of accelerating progress and reducing costs toward commercial applications.”

ITER Director Bigot said he welcomes the competition.

“It is already a success for ITER to have stimulated these new projects,” he told reporters at a press conference.