Let’s say you want to solve the world’s energy crisis. You decide to use hydrogen, a fuel source that is unlimited in quantity and inexpensive to obtain. You subject the hydrogen to a process that creates so much energy that we can close down our polluting coal mines forever and forget about the geopolitical consequences of fossil fuels. Best of all, your process generates no pollutants. Say goodbye to smog, acid rain, and greenhouse gas emissions. Before you book your flight to Oslo to accept your Nobel Peace Prize, however, consider that that a bunch of scientists have already beat you to it. The technique in question is nuclear fusion,and for years it has eluded scientists, who could not create plasma hot and dense enough to produce a net gain of energy. But that is close to changing.
Fusion is the physical process that powers the stars, and creating a machine to do the same thing on Earth is the goal of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), which is currently under construction in the South of France and is the largest scientific endeavor the world has ever known. Scientists from 35 countries have devoted decades of research to the project, and if all goes well within 10 years or so they’ll flip the switch and the particles inside the giant tokamak, a ringed-doughnut-shaped device, will ramp up to 200 million degrees Celsius and be contained by magnets cooled to -269 degrees Celsius. The plasma will be hotter than the surface of the sun, resulting in the first sustained power-producing fusion reactor in the world, which could pave the way for further reactors that could produce terawatts of power with no radioactive waste for the next 30 million years, give or take.
Why had I never heard of this? I asked myself as I read Raffi Khatchadourian’s profile of ITER in the March 3, 2014 issue of the New Yorker. You’d think that such a spectacular endeavor would be common knowledge, since it operates under no special Manhattan Project-like veil of secrecy. You’d think that skeptical activists would be taking their protests to social media, convinced that the project was either a waste of money or that it will blow up the world. But the reality is much more mundane, and possibly more insidious. As Khatchadourian explains, the real culprit is politics:
ITER was first proposed in 1985, during a tense summit in Geneva between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. . . . Since then, the cooperation has expanded to include the European Union, China, Japan, South Korea, and India. . . . No partner has full control, and there is no over-all central budget. Each country makes its primary contribution in the form of finished components, which the ITER organization will assemble in France. The arrangement could serve as a model for future collaboration—or as one to avoid.
Because there are so many cooks in the kitchen, ITER’s progress will be fraught with power plays and controversies. In a February 28, 2014 article for Science, Daniel Clery reported on the assessment of ITER that “found serious problems with the project’s leadership, management, and governance. . . . ITER leaders fear that the damning assessment . . . could cause backers to pull their funding.” It was literally easier to land a man on the moon than it will be to create a sun on Earth. But not necessarily more expensive. The lowest estimate for ITER is $20 billion, and the Apollo program came in around $109 billion—all of which was paid for by U.S. taxpayers, which is not the case for ITER, whose costs will be spread throughout the 35 participating nations. Optimists will consider this a small price to pay for the sheer knowledge the program produces.
The United States’ portion of ITER is based in Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, the original “secret city” of the Manhattan Project. The Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory and the Savannah River National Laboratory are also partners in the US portion of the project. The tasks they have taken on include the design of the tokamak shield, the cooling water systems, electron cyclotron heating transmission lines, and exhaust processing systems.
You can find lots of great animated videos that explain how ITER and the tokamak will work, and in these cases a picture is worth way more than 1,000 words. Try these:
- The DOE’s “Creating a Star on Earth” provides a look inside the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab’s National Spherical Torus Experiment (NSTX)
- “How to Put a Star in a Bottle,” a companion video by the New Yorker to accompany Khatchadourian’s article.
- ITER’s video on the tokamak assembly.
- Scientists Announce Nuclear Fusion Breakthrough, explains how scientists at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory created a miniature star.
Kathy Wilson Peacock is a writer, editor, nature lover, and flaneur of the zeitgeist. She favors science over superstition and believes that knowledge is the best super power. Favorite secret weapon: A library card.