After a rather long and nasty battle, a site has finally been chosen to host the ITER Fusion reactor.
ITER is an international consortium consisting of the EU, US, China, Russia, France, the UK, and Japan. France and Japan had been the last two countries battling for the prestige, and jobs, that hosting the ITER reactor would create. In the end, France… with the support of China, Russia and the EU won… but it’s tough to say that Japan “lost” considering some of the concessions they received in return.
The important thing here is that this project can get underway.
Fusion is the opposite of Nuclear Fission the science behind Nuclear bombs. Instead of splitting atoms apart… Fusion fuses (hydrogen, in this case) atoms together. This is the basic process that powers our own sun, so you will often here people call this project the “Sun on Earth”.
It may sound counter-intuitive, and I admit I do not understand the physics of it completely myself, but when you fuse two atoms together, massive amounts of energy, and thus electricity, can be generated. As we see with the sun. However, just like the sun… it takes massive amounts of heat and pressure just to get the Fusion engine started, and that’s where the big challenge rests. Once that engine is started.. it is thought that the energy created will sustain the reaction indifinitely as long as there is fuel (deuterium and tritium.. isotopes of Hydrogen), to burn.
Fusion has always been the thing of science fiction… the fusion proposed for ITER is “hot fusion”… that is the exact process the sun uses. They will attempt to create a device that will heat deuterium and tritium to 100 million degrees Celsius. The resulting reaction will produce 500MW of power from the reactor.. which is comparable to a standard Natural Gas fired plant built today. The first tests are slated to start as early as 2015.
The holy grail of “Fusion” power is “cold” fusion.. that is, fusion that can be initiated at close-to-room temperature. In just the past few months we have seen a number of interesting developing including this one where scientists claim to have created “pocket fusion”. If it’s the real thing, then no doubt we’ll hear more about it in coming years… otherwise, this will be just another example of overly optimistic scientists.
Fusion really could be the answer to all our energy problems… but at least for now, it is still mainly in the realm of science fiction. Hopefully ITER will now be able to move past the politicking and start producing real science that will move us closer to harnessing the power of the Sun.