Nestled in the Provence countryside, 75km from the Mediterranean port city of Marseilles, the net zero future is being created by engineers and scientists who are building the sun.
In a vast ambitious experiment, an international partnership of the world’s top nuclear experts is developing one of the most ambitious energy projects in the world today.
Named ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, and also Latin for ‘the way’), the 35-nation collaboration is attempting to build the world’s largest tokamak, a space-age, doughnut-shaped spherical chamber in which nuclear fusion will happen.
Fusion is the process that fuels stars and when ITER fires up for the first time in December 2025, conditions inside the tokamak will be hotter than the sun.
In the tremendous heat, hydrogen nuclei collide, fuse into heavier helium atoms and release enormous amounts of energy. Electrons are separated from nuclei and gas becomes plasma, the stuff of stars, often referred to as the fourth state of matter. Unrestrained, this ribbon of unimaginable energy would burn through anything, but in a tokamak, powerful magnetic fields are used to confine and control it.
The energy released by this stellar reaction could be the answer to the world’s energy problems.
Scientists and governments believe nuclear fusion could deliver the planet from the climate crisis, which makes it arguably the most significant technology in the battle against global warming.
If it can be commercially developed, nuclear fusion promises to provide limitless, safe, cheap, green energy. It is estimated that by 2050 fusion power plants could start to replace all the energy generated through fossil fuels.
Nuclear fusion is the opposite of nuclear fission, the process which currently fuels the world’s nuclear power stations. Fission is generated when heavy atoms split into lighter ones. Although modern nuclear plants are safe, the process uses highly dangerous radioactive fuel and creates toxic waste which can remain radioactive for decades. Fission plants cannot be switched on and off easily or quickly, should problems occur.
Commercial fusion reactors on the other hand run on tiny amounts of hydrogen, can be switched off in an instant and are much safer than fission reactors.
The only problem is, currently they are theoretical, like the ‘Mr Fusion’ gadget that Doc Brown attached to a DeLorean car to enable Marty McFly to travel through time in the classic Back to the Future movies.
Science fiction to become reality
Instead of commercial reactors, fusion can only currently be achieved in experimental tokamaks. Within the next decade however, science fiction is set to become reality.
Governments around the world are investing billions in developing and researching fusion technology and the $20bn ITER project is the biggest project of them all. When completed, it will be the world’s most expensive science experiment, the world’s biggest tokamak and the world’s first commercial scale fusion machine. It is designed to prove the case for scalable, commercial nuclear fission reactors and its development will allow scientists to iron out some of the problems in the process.
The project has been a long time in the making. It was set in motion at the Geneva Superpower Summit in November 1985, when the idea of a collaborative international effort to develop fusion energy for peaceful purposes was proposed by Mikhail Gorbachev of the former Soviet Union to US President Ronald Reagan.
Today ITER involves scientists from the USA, Russia, China, the EU, India, Japan and South Korea, working together to demonstrate proof of concept for commercial fusion power plants. Doubts arose over the UK’s continued input following Britain’s exit from the European Union. However, legal issues are being ironed out and it is expected that the nation will remain a partner.
A departure of the UK contingent would be a huge loss to the project as much of the groundwork for ITER was carried out in Oxfordshire in the UK at a centre run by the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA). This houses the world’s current most powerful fusion experiment, a tokamak called the Joint European Torus (JET), which is a 10 metre device built in the late 1970s and operated by a consortium of European partners. In 1997, it set a world record for fusion power generation at 16.1 megawatts. It took 25 megawatts of energy to achieve, however, which has been one of the challenges fusion scientists face; how to get out more than you put in.
In 2000, scientists and engineers at Culham Centre for Fusion Energy built a second, smaller spherical tokamak, MAST. This was upgraded and tested in 2021 and is designed to solve another of the challenges in fusion research: how to handle the exhaust heat created inside a tokamak, which can be 10,000 times hotter than the sun.
Safe and Sustainable Energy?
In December 2021, JET scientists reached another milestone when they generated 59 megajoules of energy for five seconds during an experiment, more than doubling the 1997 record. It was enough energy to power 35,000 homes for the period of time the reaction occurred, which was five seconds.
The results were ‘the clearest demonstration worldwide of the potential for fusion energy to deliver safe and sustainable low-carbon energy’, the UKAEA said.
In contrast, a 50megawatt input to ITER is projected to produce an output of around 500megawatts, enough energy to power a medium-sized city. And once the fusion reaction starts, at around 150m degrees, it becomes self-sustaining.
Professor Ian Chapman, Chief Executive of UKAEA, says scientists are now tantalisingly close to solving these puzzles and creating sustainable green energy from fusion.
‘It is a really exciting time to be involved in nuclear fusion. The promise is massive,’ he said. ‘Fusion runs on an effectively inexhaustible source of fuel. There are no safety problems because you can’t have a chain reaction like in a conventional nuclear power plant. You get enormous amounts of energy produced for a small amount of fuel. There are no carbon emissions, it is completely renewable.
‘There is an enormous amount to like, but today it doesn’t work. There are still technological challenges to overcome before lights are powered by fusion, but we are taking big steps.
‘The data we collect from these experiments at JET will form the basis of what happens in ITER in the middle of the 2020s.’
A prototype power plant is planned for the 2040s but critics say that progress towards a clean fusion future has been too slow. Britain started testing fusion theory in the late 1950s when scientists at the Atomic Energy Research Establishment in Harwell, Oxfordshire, claimed to have achieved fusion in a machine called the Zero Energy Thermonuclear Assembly, or ZETA. The data was later found to be inaccurate however, and the claim had to be publicly withdrawn. Subsequent research was shelved, setting back the technology by decades and allowing fission to take the lead.
But today there is critical momentum towards the common global goal of unlimited clean energy. Privately-funded fusion spin-offs are springing up around the globe, promising to help accelerate research and develop the technology further, in much the same way commercial companies like Space X in the US have boosted the development of space travel.
ITER will provide a blueprint for engineers and scientists around the world, who are also working on their own designs. In December 2020, for example, a South Korean tokamak set a new temperature record by reaching a temperature of over 100 million degrees Celsius for 20 seconds. In May last year China’s state news agency Xinhua reported that the Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (EAST) in a facility in the eastern city of Hefei registered a plasma temperature of 120 million degrees Celsius for 101 seconds. And earlier this year private UK company Tokamak Energy announced that its tokamak reactor also reached the 100 million Celsius threshold for commercially viable nuclear fusion.
Chris Kelsall, CEO, said: ‘We are proud to have achieved this breakthrough which puts us one step closer to providing the world with a new, secure and carbon-free energy source.’
Although the UAE is not part of the ITER experiment, the project was represented at the 2019 World Energy Congress in Abu Dhabi, at which ITER Chief Strategist, Omae Takayoshi, told delegates how cutting-edge technologies were being used to accelerate development of the technology.
He said: ‘In a very close future, a combination of new industrial technologies such as artificial intelligence, the ‘internet of things’ and computer science will be applied to build and assemble the oversize components and operate the ITER machine.’
It is feasible that these developing technologies will hasten the advent of commercial fusion and bring the ITER switch on ahead of schedule. And it is feasible that the Emirates could play a role in this bright energy future, being the first Arab and OPEC nation to harness commercial nuclear power in 2020 when it started operations at the four-reactor Barakah nuclear fission plant.
Barakah unit 1 has reached 100% power, generating 1400 MW of electricity in December 2020 and became the single largest power generator in the UAE, meeting a quarter of the UAE’s energy needs. In August 2021 the second unit at Barakah was switched on successfully. Once all units are in full operation, the power plant will produce 5.6 gigawatts of electricity for 60 years.
The development showed the UAE’s commitment to adopting more sustainable energy sources. The country considers nuclear power a cornerstone of its net-zero ambitions and foresees nuclear energy and renewables constituting 50 per cent of its installed power capacity by 2050.
It is already building international partnerships. Last year Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation (ENEC) held a high-level two-day meeting with representatives from French nuclear energy group GIFEN to reinforce the UAE-France partnership in the nuclear energy field and support the development of the UAE’s fast-growing local supply chain.
Meanwhile ITER is expanding its network of international participants, concluding non-Member technical cooperation agreements with Australia and Kazakhstan. It also has a Memorandum of Understanding with Canada, agreeing to explore the possibility of future cooperation, and a Cooperation Agreement with the Thailand Institute of Nuclear Technology. It also has over 70 Cooperation Agreements with international organizations, national laboratories, universities and schools.
Momentum at ITER and other global tokamak research projects is undoubtedly growing. And while sustainable sources of energy such as wind and solar, and alternatives such as hydrogen, will certainly play a role in the transition to net zero, it looks increasingly likely that the future will be fusion.