By Sean Jackson
On July 23rd scientists working on the world’s largest nuclear fusion reactor passed an important milestone on their way to completing the massive multinational project. The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, or ITER project, in southern France is an experiment aiming to reach the next iteration of thermonuclear energy. Its hopes are that the project will help generate emission-free electricity in a manner that mimics that of celestial bodies.
At a recent handover ceremony, scientists received an important component to seeing what they call, “First Plasma” in approximately six and a half years. The component, a cryostat base and lower cylinder, are crucial pieces of equipment that opens the door to what is known as a tokamak – which will help house the magnetic field that suspends a plasma fusion core. Tokamaks utilize magnetic fields in a donut shaped vessel, designed to suspend the plasma and have it retain heat. It is crucial that the plasma does not directly touch or interact with the edges of the tokamak, otherwise it will stop the reaction from occurring, as well as causing irreparable damage to the reactor itself.
The plasma fusion core is designed to emulate power generated by celestial bodies, such as stars, and will contain the world’s largest superconducting magnets for the magnetic field. The magnetic fields will contain plasma that approximately ten times hotter than the sun at 150 million degrees Celsius.
ITER officials stated in a news release that the cryostat was, “Manufactured by India, the ITER cryostat is 16,000 cubic meters. It’s diameter and height are both almost 30 meters and it weighs 3,850 tons. Because of its bulk it is being fabricated in four main sections: the base, lower cylinder, upper cylinder, and top lid.”
The thirty-five nation project is designed to deliver emissions free energy to the entire world. Experts in the ITER indicate that fusion energy may eliminate the need for fossil fuels, as well as mitigate the inherent concerns surrounding the reliability of other renewable sources. Unlike other nuclear energy, fusion would not generate dangerous radiation which is a concern with fission nuclear energy.
While the project has made significant headway with the delivery of the cryostat base, a spokeswoman for the ITER project indicated that it would still take around a decade to power the massive project, stating, “The date for First Plasma is set; we will push the button in December 2025. It will take another ten years until we reach full deuterium-tritium operations.”
While the ITER has been diligently trudging forward in their hopes of delivering fusion energy to the world, researchers are still working on ensuring that the theoretical energy can be harnessed without issue. Fusion reactors must be able to mirror the high pressure and temperatures of celestial bodies, and scientists are using AI and machine learning to predict possible disruptions that ITER may face during operations.
Julian Kates-Harbeck, a PhD Candidate at Harvard University has worked on the project through the Department of Energy Computational Science Graduate Fellowship by helping developing the artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms that can make predictions at a rapid rate.
“The problem is that a bigger reactor has a larger volume of energy stored in the plasma and less surface area to capture disruptions if they occur. Larger machines will be better at trapping fusion energy, but disruptions will be a much more severe problem than they are now.” Kates-Harbeck said.
According to current ITER standards, the algorithm will need to be able to detect disruptions approximately 30 milliseconds before they start, and must have 95% accuracy in terms of detecting the disruptions before they occur.