DThe idea sounds great: if the fire of the sun could be tamed in the laboratory, humanity would have an inexhaustible source of energy at its disposal. Because with just one gram of fuel – the hydrogen isotopes deuterium and tritium – a future fusion reactor could generate as much energy as is produced by burning eleven tons of coal, but without polluting the climate with carbon dioxide emissions. You don’t have to worry about running out of fuel either. After all, deuterium can be obtained from water and tritium via a nuclear reaction from lithium. Since no long-lived radioactive waste would be produced, the problem of final disposal would not arise. Even such an accident in a nuclear power plant would not be feared in a fusion power plant.
So is nuclear fusion the ideal energy source to satisfy the world’s unbridled energy hunger in the long run and protect the global climate from collapse? This question was posed on Tuesday afternoon by Constantin Häfner of the Fraunhofer Institute for Laser Technology ILT in Aachen, Peter Leibinger of the high-tech company Trumpf, Vinod Philip of Siemens Energy and Tim Luce, scientific director of the international fusion reactor under construction at Cadarche in southern France.
Experimental platforms for nuclear fusion implementation
“The planning and construction phase is over, now we are assembling all the parts of ITER”, says Luce. But the scientists, technicians and engineers of the seven ITER partners – Europe, Japan, Russia, China, South Korea, India and the US – are in a hurry. In just four years, a hydrogen plasma should ignite in Cadarche for the first time and tritium and deuterium nuclei should fuse in 2035. “ITER will then deliver 500 megawatts of fusion power, ten times the heat output used.” Peak is convinced that the huge project will succeed. Lab tests such as JET at Culham, a smaller version of ITER, would have shown that nuclear fusion works. ITER would pave the way for a fusion power plant. This could then be operational and provide clean electricity by the middle of the century.
But what is the chance of nuclear fusion on the energy market? For Vinod Philip, this mainly depends on how quickly fusion power plants will be available. “The time window is relatively small, as the expansion of renewables is progressing rapidly.” In its most recent report, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) predicts that nuclear energy, which includes nuclear fusion, will have a ten to twelve percent share of the energy market by 2050. For wind and solar energy this is even up to 80 percent. “So we need nuclear fusion as soon as possible.”