by Felix von Geyer
A 500 Megawatt hydrogen fusion plant based in South of France is now over halfway to completion and on target to produce FirstPlasma by 2025 in the bid to produce a scalable zero carbon emissions energy program to combat climate change, it was announced Wednesday.
Where since its inception, nuclear energy has over-promised and under-delivered in its ambition to create limitless energy at a price too cheap to meter, the world’s most complex scientific undertaking could alter the course of this energy pathway by the time it is completed in 2035.
Hydrogen fusion, where two atoms combine to make one larger atom, effectively mimics the sun’s own hydrogen-helium fusion process. The hydrogen fusion facility located in Aix-en-Provence will effectively create its own ‘mini-sun’ by heating to 150 million degrees Celsius a doughnut shaped magnetic field known as the Tokamak that would confine particles and plasma. At approximately the same heat as the inner core of the sun, the Tokamak would contain its own burning and self-sustained plasma, or ‘mini-sun’ Dr Bernard Bigot, Director-General of the hydrogen fusion facility ITER told neworator.com on Wednesday.
ITER – the Latin expression for ‘the way’ – uses heavy water or deuterium freely available within seawater with tritium separated from lithium to create its fuel. A two-ounce pineapple-sized quantity of hydrogen would produce the energy equivalent of 10,000 metric tonnes of coal.
‘Each gram [of hydrogen] produces as much energy as 8 tonnes of oil,’ said Bigot.
Whereas it is estimated ITER will cost $22 billion by the time it is completed in 2025, Bigot expects the costs to reduce by a factor of five or ten ‘and will be competitive with other energy worldwide,’ he said.
The reason for the projected reductions in capital and operating expenditure result from the learning process already acquired and the tools and metrics since developed and implemented in passing the pivotal halfway point towards completion.
‘We now have all the tools in place to monitor the project and the progress,’ explained Bigot ‘The largest challenge was to assemble all the pieces from all over the world. We have learned how to work together,’ he stated, underlining the nature of the project where 35 national governments including EU countries, the US, Russia, Japan, China and South Korea.
‘Many investors and countries don’t see the current global energy scenario as sustainable so it is encouraging that fusion is taken seriously,’ Bigot said.
ITER’s hydrogen fusion project started at the 1985 Geneva Sumit where former USPresident Ronald Reagan and the former USSR President Mikhail Gorbachev signed a memorandum of understanding to embark on joint research into hydrogen fusion.
Indeed, the challenges now facing the scalability of hydrogen fusion in order to produce enough clean power to combat climate change will require governments to send strong investor signals, for example low or zero-tax dividends to investors, and encourage public private partnerships in the quest to find alternative options to rare earth magnets Niobium Tin and Niobium Titanium in order to scale up the implementation of hydrogen fusion globally.
Approximately ten thousand imperials tons of Nobium have been used to produce ITER’s Tokamak, that Bigot describes as the ‘first of a kind magnetic cage.’ Bigot expects almost 200,000 tons of Niobium will ultimately be used whereas previously global annual production of this superconductive magnet has not surpassed 10,000 tons.
‘It [Niobium] is the best technology for now but we will need to find alternative options for more and more superconductive materials,’ added Bigot.
Bigot stressed the pacific purposes of hydrogen fusion for energy and agreed that the international co-operation surrounding hydrogen research could in fact provide a cornerstone to peace around mutual clean energy security. No laser technology is used in the fusion process. Instead only a highly dense hydrogen plasma similar to the sun is used to overcome the repulsive forces of the nuclei. Also as only two to three grams of hydrogen are introduced at any one time, there is almost zero chance of any meltdown and neither is there any radioactive waste.
The safety factor of hydrogen fusion plants is crucial in making the plants available to power large cities, allowing plants to be constructed near their target markets, diminishing the risk of energy loss through long power transmission grids and networks.
Regarding the long-term future of hydrogen fusion, Bigot played down the possibility of ITER’s hydrogen fusion process becoming the catalyst for similar projects in space where hydrogen fusion could theoretically fuse with the moon’s estimated 100 million tonnes of Helium-3 – compared to approximately ten tonnes of Helium-3 on Earth – and transmitting the resultant energy to Earth via Nicholas Tesla-style radiowaves or, alternatively, using fusion with tritium on Mars which would also allow for mining of the nearby asteroid belt.
Bigot laughed. ‘Yes, it is true that we have very little Helium-3 on earth compared to the moon but we are not yet at that point that we will be rolling this out to Outer Space! We’re keeping our feet firmly on the ground!’ concluded Bigot.