Nuclear fusion has traditionally been used as the core scientific principle behind thermonuclear warheads. But theoretically, the same technology that powers the weapon of mass destruction could also be used to power human cities. And if everything goes according to plan, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) will begin running tests for the first time this summer, marking a major turning point for all-human science.
Because if we can build and operate thermonuclear reactors safely, we can almost certainly handle the global energy crisis well. But this will definitely be a big challenge.
When the nuclei of two atoms fuse, they release an amazing amount of energy. The big idea behind a fusion reactor is to use a relatively small amount of energy to release a relatively large amount of energy. This is also how the sun and other stars work – why they are so bright and radiate so much heat.
Obviously, replicating the universe in the laboratory is an extremely complex task. But it basically just focuses on finding the right materials and figuring out how to generate the reaction we want at the right scales and is useful.
ITER can change anything
Scientists are expected to begin testing ITER operations at low capacity until 2025. And the first operational test will begin this June.
Specifically, researchers at EUROfusion will activate the Joint European Torus (JET), a separate experiment designed to adjust the fuel and material requirements for the ITER experiment before it is officially commissioned.
The main difference between JET and ITER is in size. In fact, although JET was born before, the advent of the ITER design became an essential part of the JET experiment. Scientists shut down JET for a period of several months to redesign it so it could work with the ITER project.
In this way, JET is a kind of proof of concept for ITER. If all goes well, it will help researchers solve important issues like fuel use and optimize fusion response.
There’s more to be done about nuclear fusion than just giving the correct fuel mixture – but that’s actually the biggest part of the answer. The conditions for controlled nuclear fusion are, in fact, much more difficult to achieve than creating a single warhead that can explode. However, this is more of a technical and technological issue than a safety issue.
Theoretically, nuclear fusion reactors are completely safe. The types of hazardous radiation situations or reactor failures that can happen with fission are essentially impossible with fusion.
The real problem is that it has to do it just right to generate enough useful energy. And of course, it has to be controlled so as not to create too much. This is easy to do if you imagine consolidation on a one-to-one kernel scale. But even modern supercomputers struggle to simulate fusion on a large enough scale, for energy to be useful.
When JET is started this summer, scientists will have a chance to solve a number of important problems. And then, in 2025, ITER will begin a 10-year service cycle, where it will operate on low capacity hydrogen reactions.
During that time, scientists will monitor the system while simultaneously exploring a multidisciplinary approach to addressing other technical concerns in increasing numbers. At the core of these efforts will be the creation of machine learning systems and artificial intelligence models, capable of powering the simulations needed to scale fusion systems.
Finally, in 2035, when the ITER team has enough data and information, they will swap the reactor’s hydrogen fuel source for deuterium and tritium, two much more powerful atoms.
If all goes according to plan, we could trade off decades of energy crises for the energy bounty of fusion.
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