World’s Largest Nuclear Fusion Reactor Completed, but Won’t Operate Until 2039

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The world’s largest nuclear fusion reactor, ITER, has been fully assembled in France.

Despite this milestone, the reactor isn’t expected to begin full operations until 2039.

About ITER

The International Fusion Energy Project (ITER) is a collaborative endeavor involving 35 countries, including all EU states, Russia, China, India, and the U.S.

Located in southern France, ITER features 19 massive coils looped into powerful toroidal magnets.

One of its most remarkable components is the world’s most powerful magnet, capable of producing a magnetic field 280,000 times stronger than Earth’s.

Timeline and Costs

ITER was initially planned to start testing in 2020, with an estimated budget of $5 billion.

However, the project has faced numerous delays and budget overruns.

The new projected start date for full operation is now 2039, and the total cost has surged to over $28 billion.

An additional $5 billion is proposed to cover unforeseen expenses and ensure the reactor’s completion.

The Challenge of Nuclear Fusion

Nuclear fusion aims to replicate the energy production process of stars.

By fusing hydrogen atoms to form helium under extremely high pressures and temperatures, fusion generates enormous amounts of energy without producing greenhouse gases or long-lasting radioactive waste.

This process contrasts with nuclear fission, used in current nuclear reactors, which splits atoms and generates significant radioactive byproducts.

Technical Difficulties

Creating the conditions necessary for fusion on Earth is highly complex.

Fusion reactors, such as ITER’s tokamak, must heat plasma to temperatures much hotter than the sun’s core.

The core of the sun reaches about 27 million degrees Fahrenheit (15 million degrees Celsius), but the pressure inside the sun is about 340 billion times the air pressure at sea level on Earth.

On Earth, we must achieve even higher temperatures because we cannot replicate these pressures.

Maintaining superheated plasma long enough for fusion to occur is a significant challenge.

If the plasma escapes confinement or cools down, the fusion process stops.

Controlling the plasma is typically done using lasers or powerful magnetic fields, but this requires extremely precise and advanced technology.

Current Status and Future Prospects

Despite its completion, ITER’s long delay means it won’t contribute to solving the immediate energy or climate crisis.

Pietro Barabaschi, ITER’s director general, emphasized that while fusion holds promise for the future, it is not a viable solution for the current energy challenges facing humanity.

The Long Road Ahead

Scientists have been working on nuclear fusion for over 70 years, but creating a reactor that produces more energy than it consumes has remained elusive.

The first tokamak design was introduced by Soviet scientist Natan Yavlinsky in 1958, but achieving a net-positive energy output has proven incredibly difficult.

Despite these challenges, ITER represents a significant step towards potentially limitless clean energy.

If successful, it could pave the way for future fusion reactors that might one day provide a sustainable and virtually inexhaustible energy source.


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