Nuclear fusion quest dealt blow as leading project warns of delays

Pulsar Fusion founder discusses nuclear power

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The race to deploy nuclear fusion, the process that could one day provide a limitless source of clean energy to millions across the globe, looks to be facing a major blow after the boss of a leading international project warned of delays. This also comes just weeks after the US announced a significant breakthrough in the missions to unlock the “holy grail” energy source after a reaction finally used up less energy than it produced in a reactor test.

The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) is a French-based project and a collaboration of 35 countries. It is one of the most significance fusion projects on the globe, with a purpose of proving that fusion can be deployed on a large-scale to allow the low-carbon, near-limitless energy source to deliver power to homes and industries in the future. 

Nuclear fusion reactions involve “fusing” atoms of hydrogen together in a super-heated plasma, instead of splitting large atoms apart, generating vast amounts of energy in the process.

This is the same process that occurs in stars like our Sun. But if harnessed down on earth, it could provide potentially limitless carbon-free energy and play a major role in ending the world’s reliance on fossil fuels. 

ITER, the French-based project, has been decades in the making. But over the years, it has faced a series of technical challenges and costing issues. The project had initially set a target of creating a plasma to host the particle-splitting reaction by 2025. 

But Pietro Barabaschi, who became the project’s director general in September, has said this deadline will have to be pushed back.

He told Agence France-Presse during a visit to the facility that the target date “wasn’t realistic in the first place”, adding that two major problems have also contributed to this suspected delay. 

The first problem was that there were incorrect sizes for the joints of blocks to be welded together for the installation’s 19 metres by 11 metres (62ft by 36ft) chamber. 

The other problem involved traces of corrosion in a thermal shield that was built to protect the outside world from the staggering amounts of heat created during the nuclear fusion process. 

Mr Barabaschi warned that addressing these issues “is not a question of weeks, but months, even years”. However, he noted that new timetable is set to be established by the end of this year. It could involve some changes to limit the expected cost overrun, and meet the French nuclear safety agency’s security regulations. 

The boss of the major nuclear project was also hopeful that ITER would be able to make up for the delays as it gears up to enter the full phase, planned for 2035.

As mentioned earlier, this comes after the US Government scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory made achieved a landmark fusion reaction at The National Ignition Facility (NIF). 

During an experiment, the scientists used 2.1 megajoules of energy to create the conditions for a fusion reaction, getting nearly 3 megajoules out of the reaction. This represented a major breakthrough as no other known fusion reaction on Earth has ever generated more energy than was used to create the experiment. 

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Dr Kimberly Budil, the Director of Lawrence Livermore said: “This is a historic achievement for our team at Livermore, our collaborators and academia, and labs in the US and abroad… who ensured we can reach this moment, even when the going was tough.

“Ignition is a first step, a truly monumental one that sets the stage for a transformational decade of high energy density science and fusion research.”

But Dr Budil warned that there is still a long way to go before commercialisation, adding: “There are very significant hurdles not just in science, but in technology.

“This is one igniting capsule, one time. To realise commercial fusion energy you have to be able to do many things. You have to be able to produce many fusion ignition events per minute, and you have to have a robust system of drivers to enable that, so probably decades.”

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