International fusion energy project faces delays, chief says

ITER, under construction in Saint-Paul-les-Durance in southern France, aims to simulate the sun, fusing particles together

ITER, under construction in Saint-Paul-les-Durance in southern France, aims to simulate the sun, which fuses particles together to release energy.

An international project in the field of nuclear fusion could face “years” of delay, its boss told AFP, weeks after scientists in the United States announced a breakthrough in their pursuit of the desired goal.

The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) project seeks to demonstrate the feasibility of fusion as a large-scale, carbon-neutral energy source.

Installed decades ago at a site in southern France, the initiative has a long history of technical challenges and cost overruns.

Fusion entails forcing the nuclei of light atomic elements together into a superheated plasma, held by strong magnetic forces in a donut-shaped chamber called a tokamak.

The idea is that fusing together molecules of isotopes of hydrogen – which can be extracted from seawater – will create a safer and nearly inexhaustible form of energy compared to the splitting of atoms from uranium or plutonium.

The previously announced goal of ITER was to produce plasma by 2025.

But this deadline must be pushed back, Pietro Barabashi – who in September became the project’s general manager – told AFP during a visit to the facility.

Even before two major problems arose, Barabashi said history was “not realistic in the first place.”

One problem, he said, was incorrect sizes of the joints of the blocks to be welded together in the fitting room, which measured 19 by 11 meters (62 by 36 ft).

The second is the effects of corrosion in the heat shield designed to protect the outside world from the massive heat generated by this Nuclear fusion.

Solving problems, Barabashi said, is “not a matter of weeks, but of months, but of years.”

He said a new schedule will be drawn up by the end of this year, including some adjustments to contain projected cost overruns, and to meet the security requirements of the French Nuclear Safety Agency.

Barabashi said he hopes ITER can make up for the delays as it prepares to enter the full phase, currently scheduled for 2035.

On December 13, US researchers working separately from ITER announced an important technical breakthrough.

Scientists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) in California say they have used the world’s largest laser to create, for the first time, fusion The reaction generates more energy than it takes for production.

“Some competition is healthy in any environment,” Barabashi said of this success.

“If tomorrow someone finds another hack that makes my work redundant, I will be very happy,” he added.

ITER was launched after the 1985 summit between US President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

Its seven partners are China, the European Union, India, Japan, South Korea, Russia and the United States.

Russia is still participating in ITER despite the start of the conflict in Ukraine.

In November, it sent one of the six giant magnets needed to the top of the tokamak.

© 2023 AFP

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