The new machine is the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, or simply ITER (pronounced 'eater'). Many machines over the past 60 years have been billed as 'the one' that will make the big breakthrough, only to stumble before getting there. But considering how close JET, its direct predecessor, got to break-even, ITER has to have a good chance. ITER is not a power station, it won't be connected to the grid and won't even generate any electricity, but its designers are aiming to go far beyond break-even and spark enough fusion reactions to produce 10 times as much heat as that pumped in to make it work. To get there requires a reactor of epic proportions. The building containing the reactor will be 60m tall and extend 13m underground--altogether taller than the Arc de Triomphe. The reactor inside will weigh 23,000 tonnes--continuing the Parisian theme, that's more than three Eiffel Towers.
At the time of writing, workers at the ITER site in Cadarache, southern France, are laying foundations, erecting buildings, installing cables and generally preparing the ground. In factories around the world the various components that will make up the reactor are being built, ready to be shipped to France and assembled on site. The scale and the quantities are prodigious. In six different ITER member countries factories are churning out niobium-tin superconducting wires for the reactor's magnets. When finished, they will have made 80,000km of wire, enough to wrap around the equator twice. The giant D-shaped coils of wire that are the electromagnets used to contain the plasma are each 14m tall and weigh 360 tonnes, as much as a fully laden jumbo jet. ITER needs 18 of these magnets. Perhaps the most mindboggling statistic about ITER, and one of the reasons it is being built by an international collaboration, is its cost: somewhere between €13 billion and €16 billion. That makes it the most expensive science experiment ever built--twice as expensive as the Large Hadron Collider at CERN.
That huge sum of money is, for the nations involved, a gamble against a future in which access to energy will become an issue of national security. Most agree that oil production is going to decline sharply during this century. There is still plenty of coal around but burning it in large quantities increases the risk of catastrophic climate change. That doesn't leave many options for the world's future energy supplies. Conventional nuclear power makes people uneasy for many reasons, including safety, the problems of disposing of waste, nuclear proliferation and terrorism.
Alternative energy sources such as wind, wave and solar power will undoubtedly be a part of our energy future. The cost of electricity from alternative sources is high but has declined substantially in recent decades and with continuing improvements in technology it will come down further. It would be very hard, however, for our modern energy-hungry society to function on alternative energy alone because it is naturally intermittent--sometimes the sun doesn't shine and the wind doesn't blow--and also diffuse--alternative technologies take up a lot of space to produce not very much power.
Difficult choices lie ahead over energy and, some fear, wars will be fought in coming decades over access to energy resources, especially as the vast populations of countries such China and India increase in prosperity and demand more energy. Anywhere that oil is produced or transported--the Strait of Hormuz, the South China Sea, the Caspian Sea, the Arctic--could be a flashpoint. Supporting fusion is like backing a long shot: it may not come through, but if it does it will pay back handsomely. No one is promising that fusion energy will be cheap; reactors are expensive things to build and operate. But in a fusion-powered world geopolitics would no longer be dominated by the oil industry, so no more oil embargoes, no wild swings in the price of crude and no more worrying that Russia will turn off the tap on its gas pipelines.
There are still many skeptics who say that fusion will never supply a single kilowatt of power to the grid because there are just too many scientific and technological uncertainties. But their views will not dent the conviction of those who have dedicated their lives to the dream of fusion energy, enduring ups and downs, dead ends, false trails and minor breakthroughs. The story of fusion is not just one of scientists toiling away in laboratories in isolation. Military expediency, international politics and historical serendipity have all boosted and buffeted the progress of fusion research. Funding for the increasingly expensive machines that fusion requires has ebbed and flowed depending on the eagerness of governments to find alternative sources of energy: the Middle East oil embargo of the 1970s led to a huge boost in funding for fusion but by the 1980s, when oil was cheap again, research money was harder to find. Atomic espionage, superpower summits, hijackings by Palestinian terrorists and the Iraq War have all impacted on fusion's fortunes. What has kept it going is the unwavering belief among the scientists who have embraced the field that one day it will work. Fusion science is not about seeking knowledge for its own sake, it doesn't have the intellectual appeal of the Big Bang, black holes, the human genome or the hunt for the Higgs boson, it is about hammering away at a stubborn nut in the conviction that one day it will crack. There's unlikely to be a eureka moment but one day the operators of ITER, or some other reactor, will get their settings just right, the plasma will get hot, stay hot, and burn like a piece of the Sun.
This article was excerpted with permission from A Piece of the Sun: The Quest for Fusion Energy Copyright © 2013 Daniel Clery. Published by The Overlook Press. All rights reserved. Daniel Clery studied theoretical physics at York University. For more than two decades, he has edited and written for some of the world's top science magazines, including Physics World, New Scientist, and Science. As a news editor for Science magazine since 1993, Clery has covered many of the biggest science news stories of our time.
I personally am much more interested in the relative simplicity of General Fusion's (generalfusion dot com) proposed method and apparatus, and their amazing goal to produce a net gain test this year (2013). Using acoustic waves to generate compression of a plasma is frankly an incredible innovation. I also see room to grow (eg. generation of compressive waves via field forces). I hope that GF achieves their goals, as it will lend much credibility to fusion as a viable energy source, and is small enough to be placed aboard a craft and potentially open up the solar-system to human colonization.
Tokamak magnetic confinement has shown to be extremely complicated and difficult to achieve, and while the research is likely to prove invaluable, I expect that alternative (even similar) magnetic-confinement methods will side-step its limitations and become more viable options. I have waning faith in the performance of Tokamak's in general.
I also like the idea of inertial laser confinement as is being done by the NIF. Of course, that setup is also incredibly complex, expensive, and large.
One word: thorium.
or in other words, The Arc reactor from iron man, VERY similar.
I love following this ITER development. You can see the pictures from Europe on their website being updated every few weeks on the incredible construction efforts.
The question doesn't seem to be if ITER will deliver but when it will deliver on the big and crucial advancements to full scale fusion energy.
The JET facility (Joint European Torus) as the biggest fusion device currently in the world has greatly advanced the field over the last 3 decades (started in 1983 and still the worlds biggest and at the core of newest innovations for materials, processes etc to be used in ITER).
The ITER is really scaling it up big time. And while very complex the process towards full scale fusion energy is actually just a step by step development. Building on one fusion development to the next.
When ITER becomes the first ever fusion experiment to achieve break-even energy (even 10 times more then put in) one of the biggest leaps in fusion will finally be achieved. From there it`s about improving the device to become more durable and economical in DEMO. But many solutions for durability and economy are already being integrated into ITER. It will need to with the extreme temperatures, pressures and including the small but sustained exposure inside the tokamak during fusion. That`s why advanced remote handling with large robotic arms is required to perform maintenance inside the core. Some future forms of fusion might do away with any radiation all together. But in any case any fusion reactor will have zero comparison with nuclear accidents in fission facilities. The radiation is far, far smaller and a fusion facility can not have any meltdowns whatsoever.
The final step for the energy generation is actually one of the easiest and already active in countless energy generators around the world. But it will be a big mental achievement once that barrier is finally crossed in DEMO. Not to be confused with the smaller Demo projects now being proposed by many nations pretending they are leading the way while investing only 1/20 or less of the needed capital for a real DEMO. Not to mention requiring integration of all the lessons learned during ITER over the next 15 to 20 years.
And then Andrea Rossi releases e-cat and scientific community gets the kick in the teeth it deserves for so vehemently ostracizing those who research low energy nuclear fusion. Then later in the decade as earth blossoms into rejuvenated life they will see that there zelotist refusal to admit, predict or research any positive binitates of global warming will have been woefully misguided.
I for one am excited for fusion technology, but I don't really think it's the end all answer to the energy crisis. It is but one part of a larger resolution to our situation; it will take more than one incredible technology to advance us past this petroleum road block we're running our heads against currently.
I love science, probably more than the next guy. I have worked on projects where the expected, or hoped for, payoff would have been immense but the reality of the project is that we just kept pouring more time and effort into a money pit. At some point the cost outweighed any possible benefit and that is what fusion research at such a large scale seems to be indicating - it is a waste of good resources better spent in other directions. Still, it's not my money so good luck on this next iteration.
People tried to fly for a long time, and there was never a lack of doubters. Ever seen the pictures of the wright brothers plane and compared them to the modern lightweight equivalent?
Thorium is right. LFTR. China is doing it big.
Mr. Rossie and his device, the "E-Cat", are catching a lot of flak because of his secretive behavior about his machine and process. He has been saying that he has control over the process for some time now and has not given a demonstration in front of an independent …and I stress the word independent…group of researchers that have the technical knowledge to assess his claims.
Consider K.R. Sridhar and his development of a practical fuel cell…other wise known as the “Bloom Box” .
and the company website:
The man wasted very little time going public with his developments and welcomed the media. The more Press he got the more validation of his claims and advertisement for him. From this invention he started a company. He had his share of sceptics also. The way he proved them wrong was to demonstrate his device to all who wanted to see it.
I can not think of any other serious inventor (Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse) that kept their inventions from the press when they made a claim that it worked.
It would be really nice if Mr. Rossi had something that did what he said it can do. However up to this point all I have seen of a validation is a PDF document with a couple of names of unknown scientists on it that contained pictures of an experiment that looked like it was set up in a warehouse.
Hmmm, Sun on Earth. What a concept. Sustained hot plasma in a magnetic field. Forget that plasma burns hot enough that if it, the magnetic field, keeping it from touching the walls, ever failed it would vaporize the whole facility and the Earth around it. Lol. Limited radiation damage huh? That thing is hot enough to cause fusion of normal matter all around it. Let's not go there though. Aside from this hot plasma donut we are still ignoring the most abundant energy source this planet has... The Sun!!!! The potential of the Suns energy, even on a cloudy day, is far more energy than 100 of these would ever make in a day. Our problem is our energy grid. We need an energy grid that is more like the internet. It needs to be connected to everything and taking energy from every source it can. Screw energy companies. None of us should ever have to pay a power bill again!
"Do not try and bend the spoon. That is impossible. Only try and realize the truth - there is no spoon."
The title of this article says it all: "The most expensive science experiment ever".
ITER has cost taxpayers billions and in reality will produce little benefit for the average person. Sure, ITER will keep a bunch of engineers and scientists employed for a decade, and might even produce some experimental results that help advance our knowledge of physics. But over its entire lifetime, ITER operations will never directly result in a practical fusion power generator. Just like the hundreds of billions NASA spent on Apollo, Space Shuttle and ISS over the past 50 years have never resulted in mankind colonizing space.
"....failed it would vaporize the whole facility and the Earth around it. Lol.
A minor catastrophe gets a laugh?
The plasma is hot but there's not much of it. The machine would be badly damaged but there would be no large-scale vaporization. And no, there would not be fusion of normal matter.
A better grid is indeed needed, for several reasons. In the U.S., the Republicans have repeatedly refused to allocate and approve funding for doing so. They've treated needed repair and rebuilding of approximately 10,000 bridges the same way. Both of these things would create hundreds of thousands of new jobs - but they don't consider that important, either. You want a better grid? Write your Congressman.
"Just like the hundreds of billions NASA spent on Apollo, Space Shuttle and ISS over the past 50 years have never resulted in mankind colonizing space."
NASA was never tasked with colonizing space and no funds given for doing so.
Whatever the results of ITER the data will be useful not just to physics but towards building a prototype power generator. Whether magnetic confinement proves to be a better choice amongst the competition remains to be found.
Hmmm lets think this through....Even in their heyday conventional nuclear power plant took 10-15 years for approval. Now we have a technology that has not even had a successful laboratory test run, much less commercial proof of concept demonstration....I figure anyone reading this article will be in the grave from old age before the first operational power plant is built....
but in the words of Montgomery (Monty) Burns
"continue the research"
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The Earths magnetic field is lowering and magnetic north has been moving for 300 years. It is still to early in the big scheme of things to know if this is a massive magnetic polar shift. In another 300 years it may correct itself,..... maybe. Currently the dropping of the magnetic field is accelerating. It does cause a great cause migrating birds, animals and sea life to get lost, hence the common occurrence we see on the media.
What does this mean for us? More solar radiation to hit animal life, but it will not cause any type of massive extinction, though the added radiation will increase cancer in general. The decreasing magnetic field surrounding Earth will allow more solar radiation to warm our atmosphere. If this happens or not, has nothing to do with humanity causing it or being able to stop it. We are basically helpless to its effects.
Ta Da! Here arrives Superman USA Government and world governments to rescue all of us from all that makes us afraid and the only way they can do this is make sure we feel guilty for causing global warming and with $$$ dollars to the governments we can be saved, plus $$$$ to business as well. Yea! Yea! We are safe now.
It is a good idea to reduce pollution, because YES we are slowly poisoning ourselves and life on Earth. And being efficient in the making and use of energy is always a good idea as well.
We do not need bigger government, we need less.
When I look at something like fusion, I want to put it in the same category as battery cars...that is F.U.D.
By presenting these pie in the sky technologies that never pan out, you can fool people into not adopting real working technologies like hydrogen fuel cells.
This in general is also known as muddying the waters and obviously since many do not have the time to distinguish between a very workable technology, like hydrogen, and a complete chimera, like fusion and battery cars, it's easy to pull the wool over their eyes...especially if you have a vested interest in keeping them immersed in pollutants from burning fossil fuels.
There has not been a single new nuclear power plant built in the US for almost 3 decades. Even the most optimistic scenario for a practical fusion power generator doesn't allow for anything happening sooner than about 40-50 years from now. Thus, the earliest we can expect a commercial fusion power plant to come on-line will be about 70-80 years from now.
A farmer and his farm is an energy efficent, enviromentally safe solar energy manufactoring machine for supporting life.
The end goal is support of life.
@jimbo312, that plasma will reach 150,000,000° Celsius in order to attain fusion. I'll let you read that number again.
That temp is as hot as the core of sun. "Sun on Earth" is no Joke because this thing is the same temperature. There is a reason that its so far underground, protected by very thick walls. This reactor is hot enough to ignite our atmosphere if it were exposed to it. That would level an entire planet of air breathers. You can downplay the chances of it happening, if you want to, but the physics/heat in play here do all the talking. If the magnets fail the vaporization will turn the surrounding walls into plasma as well. A larger sustained reaction "could" occur. I speculate, of course, but let's hear about the technology that is supposed to keep this from happening?
The other reason is perhaps to keep it safe from EMP that could take down its magnets and purposely cause a catastrophe. A nuclear bunker buster here would do quite a lot of damage if this thing were at full power. I don't think making anything that hot is a good idea.
jimbo312, you there? You smellin the burnt popcorn here?
On the energy grid... nothing stopping us from making small neighborhood grids with solar power. We need more efficient solar cells. They are on the verge of existence, now that we have plasmonics and carbon "black" materials that can absorb 99% of light. Energy companies are crapping themselves right now hoping that no one bridges the gap and starts putting out an 50%+ efficient cell/material. They would be doomed... over night. The end of electric bills is near!
"Do not try and bend the spoon. That is impossible. Only try and realize the truth - there is no spoon."
Fusion energy may someday be practical, but I believe it's fifty to several hundred years from now. We simply don't have the material technology for containment.
But, there is a technology right now which is producing power. It doesn't produce that which can be obtained from fusion or anti-matter, but it does produce 200 times the energy which a hydrogen cell can, or burning gasoline, or natural gas, or burning coal and all the other ways we try to obtain energy.
I can't believe some of you so called science buffs refuse to read about it and discuss it. Instead we keep discussing people like Rossi, who, as far as I've heard, hasn't proven that his invention can produce sustained energy, on it's own, for even 30 days.
Why not go here and take a look. www.blacklightpower.com
I would like to here from some of you who know a little physics to comment.
thumbpick, its pretty much looking like a hydrogen fuel cell. I understand they are trying to make a distinction with the type of Hydrogen being more dense, due its electron cloud being closer to its nucleus, but the process is very similar. Hydrogen is a very abundant and reliable fuel source but also very volatile. I'm not sure why Hydrogen isn't taking off. Hydrogen is still dwarfed by potential solar energy though. It is cleaner, and better, than fossil fuels but still requires a lot of energy to convert. Pressurizing Hydrogen gas is also a risky endeavor, at almost any size. A poorly designed hydrogen gas container might leave a small crater during a car accident, for instance. Covering the Earth in 50%+ light gathering materials, that can convert at least 42% of that light to electricity, would do more than all the reactors on the planet. Battery technology and a better energy grid would revolutionize this planet in terms of energy production. Period. By far the safest and most abundant energy source, for every energy needs, is the Sun. A rocketship may still need solid rocket fuel, nuclear power, or something with a little more kick but, for people trying to go to work, cool or heat their houses, cook dinner, run their computers, phones etc., the Sun is our best bet.
"Do not try and bend the spoon. That is impossible. Only try and realize the truth - there is no spoon."
Thanks for the reply.
I agree with you fully about hydrogen fuel cells and how volatile they are. That's why I don't want to see any of them around. But that's not what this process is.
Dr. Mills found a way to reduce the electron in it's orbital. And it's just like you say, the electron is closer to the nucleus. But old physics says this is possible but can't be done because no one has figured out how to do it.
Now, it just so happens that when this is done, the hydrogen atom gives off tremendous heat. And this heat is what his process is all about. There is no hydrogen being burned as fuel, the heat given off in the process is converted to electricity in his generator.
The only discarded substance is oxygen. The hydrino is not even used. So there is no combustion. It's a completely green process. It's fuel is hydrogen extracted from water which takes about 1% of the energy produced to sustain the process.
This is why I quite reading the print magazine. About one- quarter of the comments are modestly thoughtful. To call the other three-quarters the work of crackpots would be a serious insult to all legitimate crackpots everywhere?
D49, take a step back in time to the 1940's. EVERY argument you've presented are identical to those made by physists of the era who feared the concept of nuclear fission - including igniting the atmosphere.
One would be irresponsibly stupid to ignore the risks that accompany manipulating the nuclear bonds of matter. 25 years as an electrician has taught me that fear can be crippling but can be managed 99% of the time with education, planning, and common sense - if one so chooses.
You choose fear. That's one helluva way to live life. I choose to trust but verify. That's why we have Wiggies.
It does not exist only the ITER behemoth project. There are other lighter and safer concepts just waiting to be funded and built with less money and in less time. www.youtube.com/v/VUrt186pWoA
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Good Lord!! Research LENR