International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER)

Nuclear fusion: making energy with star quality

Image credit: ITER

As we enter the ‘third era’ of nuclear fusion research we are set to take a ‘giant leap’ towards an inexhaustible source of clean energy, says Alain Bécoulet.

“I wanted to explain as simply as possible the science and technology of nuclear fusion and I wanted to locate its place in the energy mix today.” Alain Bécoulet is discussing why an engineer with no previous experience as an author should want to take on the task of writing a primer on the subject of nuclear fusion.

He thinks that the public doesn’t understand how the international scientific research community is engaging with a technology that will one day democratise energy with cheap, sustainable, clean and green power for everyone. ‘Star Power’ is Bécoulet’s highly readable attempt to provide the history and context of nuclear fusion, “in a way that will help us to understand where we are going with it and what’s left to be done.”

The problem with nuclear fusion, he says, is not so much the scientific or technological difficulties associated with making it happen. It’s more that the finishing line is simply so far away in the distant future that the idea of all this cheap clean energy seems more like science fiction than scientific reality.

“Neither governments nor the public have the attention span to deal with long-term projects. People are only interested in time-to-market of three or four years,” Bécoulet explains. “You can develop washing machines or telephones on that sort of basis. But you can’t develop a nuclear reactor in that time,” he says referring to his work at ITER. “It’s as simple as that. There are still some big adventures happening, such as the exploration of Mars. Research into nuclear fusion energy is an adventure on that scale, but to succeed in this sort of project you need to stick to a long-term plan.”

Bécoulet is chief engineer at the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), a global nuclear fusion research and engineering megaproject with the mission of replicating the fusion processes of the sun to create energy here on Earth. The reactor, which is based in the south of France at Cadarache has been variously described as the most expensive science experiment of all time, the most complicated engineering project in human history and one of the most ambitious human collaborations since the development of the International Space Station.

We read it for you

‘Star Power’

Imagine a world where there is a clean, cheap and inexhaustible source of energy. That world isn’t one of science fiction, but of nuclear fusion. For decades, fusion has been marginalised as a fringe area of scientific research. But as we enter what Alain Bécoulet describes in Star Power as the ‘third era’ of fusion energy, we are seeing the ITER project taking a ‘giant step’ in the development of a new type of power. Chief engineer at ITER, Bécoulet explains how nuclear fusion – the process that makes stars shine – could be domesticated for commercial energy production, giving the world limitless power without depleting natural resources or damaging the environment. In this indispensable primer on the topic, Bécoulet examines the history of fusion energy, explains the science and technology, as well as describing today’s massive scientific effort to bring fusion closer to commercial reality.

Clearly, it’s big news and yet, as Bécoulet explains, most people don’t know the difference between nuclear fission and fusion. For the record, the fission process is currently being used to produce electricity in power plants in more than 400 operating reactors worldwide, while fusion is still very much at the research stage. “They are both nuclear reaction processes,” says Bécoulet, “but they are different on several specific levels” – which are covered in the first third of his book. The key points, he says, are that fusion is “intrinsically safe because it is not a chain reaction. It is also a very powerful reaction – even more so than fission. But there is no nuclear waste produced by the reaction. There are no waste products that need to be processed or buried 500 metres below the surface of the earth.”

Meanwhile, the source materials are plentiful and cheap: “A fusion reactor will be fed with deuterium and lithium and will release only helium – which harms neither human beings nor nature. The three elements in question are stable. Deuterium is found all over the earth - some 30 grammes occur per cubic metre of seawater. Likewise, lithium is abundant in both the earth’s crust and the oceans.”

Bécoulet goes on to say that the industries required to extract these elements don’t exist yet and they will come at an environmental cost. But given that these materials are conspicuously abundant, and crucially, evenly distributed globally, with reserves lasting for tens of thousands of years (if not indefinitely), these costs are worth absorbing somehow. And because the elements are plentiful in contrast to fossil fuels, fusion power won’t bring with it the geostrategic tensions associated with oil and gas. As Bécoulet writes in ‘Star Power’, this new energy sector, “promises the immense merit of quasi-universal access to the necessary resources.”

This is the point at which ‘Star Power’ changes in tone, from the blissful optimism of solving the world’s mounting energy crises to explaining how the process of producing the energy is “tremendously difficult. We know it works because it happens on every star. But there are huge technological challenges,” which are outlined in the middle section of the book. The good news is that these challenges are being overcome: “if you draw a graph of the progress of fusion power versus time, you go faster than the famous Moore’s Law in electronics. But we started from zero and there is still a long way to go.”

Where we are today, says Bécoulet, is at the start of what he calls the ‘third era’ of nuclear fusion research, a field in which eras last for roughly a quarter of a century. The first, “was really when we had the idea that this could work, when we spent 25 years making a magnetic confinement configuration,” which culminated with the design of the tokamak, an experimental machine designed to harness fusion energy.

The second era was when “we made the engineering laws of fusion, the research and development phase, the moment we said: ‘Okay it’s feasible’, when ITER came into existence.” The third era, “where we are today, is when we are assembling the technology and the science, putting it all in once device and working on optimising it.” The official forecast for when there will be the first reactor producing power is 2050, but there are commercial organisations that think it will be sooner. 

At the end of our time, I ask Bécoulet if he is confident that the day will arrive when electricity derived from nuclear fusion will be part of our day-to-day energy mix. His response is elliptic in that he is happy to state his confidence in making the technology work, “but after that it is out of the hands of the scientists and engineers. We are enabling a new source of energy. But if you are asking if we will use it commercially, I can’t answer that. I don’t have a crystal ball.”

‘Star Power: ITER and the International Quest for Fusion Energy’ by Alain Bécoulet, is published by The MIT Press, £23

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Power from the stars

Sixty years have passed since we embarked on the somewhat mad enterprise of domesticating the energy of the stars. Does this span represent a long time or just a little? Is it worth continuing to fund the enterprise? Does it have a reasonable chance of proving successful? Aren’t there other solutions: easier ones, and less expensive too? Does the solution to the problem of energy even exist? Could this be another case of smoke and mirrors clouding the judgment of scientists?

These questions are legitimate. But we shouldn’t confuse motivations with solutions where research is concerned. Fusion research doesn’t represent a fundamental discipline in the same sense as cosmology or high-energy physics. Instead, it has the concrete goal of serving social interest, presenting a moral contract between society and the scientific community, made up of resources allocated by the taxpayer and global management independent of those seeking support.

That said, fusion research joins the search for a new, clean and practically inexhaustible source of energy with the Promethean undertaking of finding and mastering a “secret” with enormous implications for humanity as a whole. The concrete work of scientists and political decision makers anchors this socially and symbolically charged enterprise. This is why the research community has managed to organise itself so well on an international scale from the start, in contrast to any number of other fields with more competition and schedules of operation at smaller intervals.

The almost familial spirit of cooperation that prevails is striking, as are levels of individual commitment when facing a superhuman task. Few areas of research display this twofold character: a quest for the Grail and a relay race in one. As we have seen, the task demands both scientific imagination and technological ingenuity: it’s a planetary enterprise comparable to the conquest of space.

Edited extract from ‘Star Power: ITER and the International Quest for Fusion Energy’ By Alain Bécoulet, reproduced with permission.

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