OPINION: The way to fusion-based power is closer than we think


Amy Waas

Imagine taking the most powerful energy source in the universe and harnessing it to create a sustainable, low-risk, clean source of energy on Earth. Though it sounds impossible, a global initiative has been in the works to create such a source — ITER, which translates to “he way” in Latin, is a French-headquartered project attempting to create one of the most ambitious modern energy products today. 

The most powerful energy source in the universe currently known is nuclear fusion, the process of combining atoms. Every atom has a nucleus that holds specific numbers of protons and neutrons. Different chemical elements have varying numbers of protons and neutrons; if two unique atoms combine, or fuse, with a high concentration of energy, a new element can be created. 

This process yields energy and heat in high quantities. For instance, both the sun and the stars shine because of nuclear fusion. This is the opposite of nuclear fission, which also releases energy, but instead involves the separation of nuclei. 

 ITER nuclear power plants would incorporate nuclear fusion into their design in an attempt to produce and harness the released energy as an alternative form of power. Currently, no nuclear-fusion based plant with harvestable energy exists, current nuclear powerplants use fission to create energy. But ITER is a stepping stone in that direction.  

ITER is using the participation of 28 countries, including China, members of the European Union, India, Japan, Korea, Russia and the United States, to create an experimental device that produces net energy, which really refers to the raw, powerful energy that could be used in place of modern power sources. ITER tests global technologies and designs with unprecedented scientific cooperation, and it currently predicts full operational ability by 2025, a deadline which is quickly approaching.

Why fusion opposed to other means of creating raw energy? From sea-water uranium, fusion could produce massive quantities of carbon-free energy with no environmental impact. It’s the holy grail of new energy development.

ITER created and employs a tokamak reactor resembling a cored apple, which is important for the key function of the machine: to absorb the heat and energy it creates within its walls. The process of a tokamak is unique, as it converts hydrogen into plasma through extreme heat and pressure. The tokamak is the most promising fusion device of the modern world, and ITER is projected to have the largest tokamak in existence.

More than 200 tokamaks have contributed to the research involved in creating ITER, which is nearing completion. This October, the first shield thermal segments were installed. In November, coils and vacuum vessels integral to the machines’ functionality will be complete. With each milestone, ITER comes closer to prototyping a feasible nuclear fusion energy source. Once ITER is functional, nuclear fusion-based energy will be a worldwide possibility.

More importantly, ITER can help solve the growing issue of sustainable energy sources and power plants. These plants rely on fossil fuels, nuclear fission or renewable sources, then generate electricity by converting mechanical power into electrical power. This is expensive, with plenty of negative environmental impact. Using a tokamak will harness the energy of fusion itself, preventing the waste and environmental damage of most modern power plants. 

Though this sounds amazing, the process and creation of nuclear fusion machines are incredibly difficult. Milestone completion is exciting but the finished project is still at least five years away. Until then, following ITER’s progress on it’s website is important — the historic experiment has more potential than we know and could provide an alternative energy source capable of sustaining the world for a fraction of the cost.