The world’s largest experimental nuclear fusion project, one which may find a way to secure our energy needs in the future, achieved a key milestone recently. On 28 July, a celebratory occasion marked the start of assembling major components that make up the fusion device.
The expectation is that five years later, the first plasma will be generated.
The process is nuclear fusion — when two or more light atomic nuclei fuse to produce a heavier nucleus, accompanied with an envious release of energy.
It’s what goes on in the core of our Sun.
To recreate that here on Earth is a challenge because we don’t have, say, the Sun’s gravity to help us fuse atoms effortlessly — which is why we need a fusion reactor to do that job for us.
And that is ITER’s aspiration.
The first plasma scheduled for 2025 will be humble and short-lived (if everything works out), but it will pave the way for the next big step for the project a decade later when fusion power generation will be shown as possible, viable, and sustainable — and without the blazing plasma heat of fusion (about 100 million Kelvin!) burning a hole in government pockets.
It’s taken three-and-a-half decades for this highly ambitious project to get here.
The need for international collaboration in fusion research was recognised in the 60s (at a time when bilateral partnerships were the norm), but it was only in the mid-80s that the idea began to take shape.
ITER, a background
Soviet Union general secretary Mikhail Gorbachev had pitched the idea to United States President Ronald Reagan during the cold 1985 November at the Geneva Summit — at the peak of Cold War tensions.
In this cold, however, was sown the seed of an experiment that would generate the heat of the Sun — “widest practicable development of international cooperation” in nuclear fusion “…for the benefit of all mankind.”