The world’s biggest and most expensive nuclear fusion research project, known as the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), in which India is a scientific partner is now 50 per cent built. Carbon-free and environmentally sustainable fusion is the same energy source from the sun that gives the earth its light and warmth.
ITER, the most complex science project in human history, will use hydrogen fusion, controlled by superconducting magnets, to produce massive heat energy. In the commercial machines that will follow, this heat will drive turbines to produce electricity.
The ITER facility is being built in southern France by a scientific partnership of 35 countries. Scientists say a pineapple-sized amount of hydrogen offers as much fusion energy as 10,000 tonnes of fossil fuel coal.
ITER’s specialised components, roughly 10 million parts in total, are being manufactured in industrial facilities all over the world. They are subsequently shipped to the ITER worksite, where they must be assembled, piece-by-piece, into the final machine.
Each of the seven ITER members – the European Union, China, India, Japan, Korea, Russia and the US – is fabricating a significant portion of the machine. This adds to ITER’s complexity.
In a message on December 1 to top-level officials in ITER member-governments, the project reported it had completed 50 per cent of the “total construction work scope through First Plasma”.
First Plasma, scheduled for December 2025, will be the first stage of operation for ITER as a functional machine. “The stakes are very high for ITER,” writes ITER Director-General Bernard Bigot.
“When we prove that fusion is a viable energy source, it will eventually replace burning fossil fuels, which are non-renewable and non-sustainable. Fusion will be complementary with wind, solar, and other renewable energies.”
“Our design has taken advantage of the best expertise of every member’s scientific and industrial base. No country could do this alone. We are all learning from each other, for the world’s mutual benefit.”
The concept of the project was conceived at the 1985 Geneva Summit between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. The ITER 50 per cent milestone is getting significant attention.
When the ITER Agreement was signed in 2006, it was supported by leaders like French President Jacques Chirac, US President George W. Bush and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
More than 80 per cent of the cost of the ITER, about $22 billion, is contributed in the form of components manufactured by the partners. Many of these massive components of the ITER machine must be precisely fitted, for example, 17-meter-high magnets with less than a millimetre of tolerance. Each component must be ready on time to fit into the master schedule for machine assembly.
The European Union is paying 45 per cent of the cost; China, India, Japan, Korea, Russia and the US each contribute 9 per cent equally. All members share in ITER’s technology; they receive equal access to the intellectual property and innovation that comes from building the ITER.
When will commercial fusion plants be ready?
ITER scientists predict that fusion plants will start to come on line as soon as 2040. The exact timing, according to fusion experts, will depend on the level of public urgency and political will that translates to financial investment.
The ITER will produce 500 megawatts of thermal power. This size of the plant is suitable for studying “burning” or largely self-heating plasma, a state of matter that has never been produced in a controlled environment on earth.
In “burning” plasma, most of the plasma heating comes from the fusion reaction itself. Studying the fusion science and technology at ITER’s scale will enable optimization of the plants that follow.
A commercial fusion plant will be designed with a slightly larger plasma chamber, for 10-15 times more electrical power. A 2,000-megawatt fusion electricity plant, for example, would supply two million homes.
The Procurement components to be fabricated and delivered by ITER-India with active participation of the Indian Industry are: Cryostat and Vacuum Vessel Pressure Suppression System (VVPSS), Vacuum Vessel In-Wall Shields, Cryo-distribution System, Cooling Water System, Ion Cyclotron Resonance Heating (ICRH) sources, Startup Electron Cyclotron Resonance System (ECRH) sources, Diagnostic Neutral Beam, Regulated High Voltage Power Supplies as well as some diagnostic systems.