Fusion energy research ‘powering’ European industry


European research into the realisation of carbon-free fusion energy has generated a series of core benefits for the industry worldwide. These include the breakthroughs in magnetic resonance spectroscopy and advances in explosive metal construction that have helped the aeronautics industry.

Petra Nieckchen, the communications head of EUROfusion, pointed out that 30 national fusion research institutes and 150 universities of 28 European countries are working together to achieve the ultimate goal of the European Fusion Roadmap that outlines the R&D required to provide the basis for an electricity-generating fusion power plant, the “world’s largest science experiment”.

The key research infrastructure is the upcoming International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) in Saint-Paul-les-Durance in southern France that aims to develop fusion technology to make commercially-viable fusion energy, the world’s clean energy, a reality by the second half of this century.

“The breakthroughs we have made in magnetic resonance spectroscopy have helped to save lives and create an industry worth almost $20 billion,” Nieckchen told this IANS visiting correspondent in an interview about one of the spin-offs from the research.

The development of remote handling techniques has led to major advances in power decommissioning and has enormous potential for use in other hostile or mega- and micro-scale environments where direct human operation is sub-optimal.

Asked about the other benefits European industry and laboratories are reaping from the construction of the ITER project, she said: “Advances in explosive metal construction have helped the aeronautics industry to create the next generation of aircraft cockpits.

EUROfusion is the consortium of 28 European countries that guides the research of its members to achieve fusion power. This includes 26 European Union nations plus Switzerland and Ukraine.

The ITER members, China, the European Union, India, Japan, Korea, Russia and the US, are engaged in a 35-year collaboration to build and operate the ITER experimental fusion device, proving the feasibility of a fusion power station.

Nieckchen said the EUROfusion consortium plays a crucial role in fusion research.

Since 1983, this is done through EUROfusion’s JET fusion experiment, designed by the very same engineer who designed ITER. Despite being considerably different in size, the similarities of shape are striking.

“This allows JET to perform experiments and tests for ITER before the international reactor sees the light in 2025,” she said. “That way, JET paved the way for ITER decisions on materials choices, and designs for crucial parts of the machine.”

No material on earth can withstand particles heated up to 100 million degrees Celsius.

But plasma consists of negative electrons and positive nuclei and charged particles are attracted by magnetic fields.

The art of fusion is to build a three-dimensional magnetic cage which traps the particles and allows them to fuse. Heating up the particles to these incredible high temperatures and confine them is routinely done all over the world.

The ITER facility is going to demonstrate that this can be done sufficiently long for a power plant.

ITER is not designed and will never supply energy to the grid. It is being built as a proof-of-principle experiment to demonstrate that the principle works — that is to generate energy using fusion processes.

EUROfusion Programme Manager Tony Donne believes fusion is not in competition with other renewables. “It is needed as back-up and as part of the energy mix.”

“To make fusion work on earth we need to overcome a number of challenges. The Fusion Roadmap is the master plan how to solve the challenges and achieve electricity from fusion,” he added.

At a cost of over $24 billion, the ITER facility could be the answer to the world’s clean energy needs — but that won’t be possible till 2035.

“The ITER project is very much on track. By the second half of this century this fusion technology will be available,” ITER Director General Bernard Bigot told IANS.

“Fossil fuel will not be so easy to use any more. We will have a competitive fusion technology which will be available for the whole world,” he said.