The EU has agreed a deal on the financing and timetabling of a fusion reactor project. The project, which is based at Cadarache in France, has seen costs spiral out of control. The new agreement provides for a total price tag of US$ 21 billion, three times the original price.
The project aims to replicate the nuclear fusion that occurs in the sun, in order to harness potentially limitless energy at a low cost. However, the process is understandably very complex and is still in the experimental stages. A timetable has been agreed by which the first ‘plasma’ experiments will take place in 2019, and a working fusion reactor, which generates significantly more power than it consumes will be operational by 2026/7.
The process seeks to replicate the sun’s fusion reaction, whereby two lighter hydrogen atoms form one heavier helium atom, producing vast amounts of energy. Replicating this process on earth produces some difficulties though, not least because the sun generates gravitational forces that are impossible to replicate.
At extreme temperatures, electrons are separated from nuclei and a gas becomes a plasma - a hot, electrically charged gas, the tokamak device uses magnetic fields to contain and control the hot plasma. The fusion between two hydrogen atoms will produce one helium nuclei, one neutron and energy.
The helium nucleus carries an electric charge which will respond to the magnetic fields of the tokamak, and remain confined within the plasma. However some 80% of the energy produced is carried away from the plasma by the neutron which has no electrical charge and is therefore unaffected by magnetic fields. The neutrons will be absorbed by the surrounding walls of the tokamak, transferring their energy to the walls as heat.
This heat will be harnessed to drive steam turbines and generate energy. There are some serious hurdles to overcome though, not least the fact that the reactor has to withstand temperatures up to 150 000 000 C°. The theory sounds compelling though and the timetable is long.
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