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Unlimited Energy – The World’s Largest Nuclear Reactor May Provide A Solution

Source: ITER

The world is energy-hungry, and while we can provide a lot of our energy needs with fossil fuels, it’s destroying our environment. New nuclear technology from ITER could promise us unlimited energy soon if it all goes to plan. Let’s look at what might be the most critical energy development ever.

Clean, Safe Nuclear Technology

Most people have a bad idea of nuclear technology. Throughout the 80s and 90s, atomic disasters made the technology unpalatable for a lot of the public. It led to many nuclear programs being shelved or wholly dismantled.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Nuclear fission, the technology most old atomic facilities were built on, is a relatively unsafe technology. There are ways to make it safer, and much research has happened in that time. But there is a far safer and more efficient energy source.

Fusion Technology Is Possible

The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, also called ITER, set out to prove that nuclear fusion wasn’t only possible but also useful as an energy source. This energy is what powers stars like our sun.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Unfortunately, it’s been difficult for us to replicate fission on Earth to give us a surplus of energy. Fission usually takes a lot of energy to get started, and the power we gain from it must be more than the input energy to make sense.

Arguably The Most Complex Machine Ever Designed

The ITER is a massively complicated machine. Located in the heart of Provence, France, this machine has the potential to change how we see energy here on Earth.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

The reactor was conceptualized and funded in 2006, with initial funding from several countries, including South Korea, India, China, Russia, and the US. The reactor is the first of its type, weighing a massive 23,000 tons and being able to withstand up to 150 million degrees centigrade (302 million degrees Fahrenheit).

An Industrialized Reactor

The team at ITER is investing their time and effort into showing that fusion can be used in an industrialized reactor. It’s designed as a “tokamak,” a specialized reactor working to ensure that fusion reaction is maintained.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

A tokamak’s core is a doughnut-shaped vacuum chamber where gaseous hydrogen transforms under intense heat and pressure into a plasma, creating conditions for hydrogen atoms to fuse and release energy.

A Long Timeline

Despite much work being done on the ITER, the team says it still has a long way to go. The original funding for the project was set at $5.5 billion, but today, the cost has almost gotten to $22 billion, and the project has yet to produce any power.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

However, the ITER is still experimental, and it will be a while before we fully understand the tokamak and its nuances. To stay on schedule, the ITER is planning to skip its first plasma testing phase.

Plasma Is How The Tokamak Functions

The tokamak reactor is unique because it has nothing you’d expect in a typical reactor. There are no control rods of the nuclear core. Instead, it’s all about a state of matter called plasma.

Source: Flickr/Peter Whiddon

Plasma is a supercharged gas where particles lose their electrons, making it a highly energetic and conductive state of matter.

How Does a Tokamak Reactor Operate?

A tokamak reactor uses a donut-shaped chamber to heat and pressurize hydrogen gas until it becomes a hot, electrically charged plasma. This creates conditions for hydrogen atoms to fuse, releasing energy in a controlled way and potentially providing a sustainable source of power.

Source: Flickr

Lasers are focused on the chamber to heat up the hydrogen and turn it into a superconducting plasma. The heat within this plasma would keep the heating reaction going without the need for more input energy.

Not a New Technology, But a Modern Use Case

The tokamak was initially developed during the 1950s and 1960s by Soviet physicists Igor Tamm and Andrei Sakharov as a controlled fusion research device, with the first operational tokamak, T-1, built in 1958.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

The tokamak being used in the ITER is a modern version of the soviet research module. This particular tokamak will be the world’s largest, with over six times the gas volume on the inside to facilitate reactions.

Difficult Going When Forging a Path

Lead Research Laban Coblentz said that the research that ITER was doing was pushing the boundaries of what is possible. A lot of the research that’s happening uses first-of-its-kind materials and processes.

Source: Flickr/Michael Coghlan

Coblentz has noted that this is why the project is taking so long to get results. No one has ever done what they’re trying to do on such a scale. The team in Provence is only one of several working on solutions.

Fusion Technology Could Solve Global Warming

Nuclear fusion’s most significant selling point is that it could efficiently replace other energy sources. Most of the world still runs on fossil fuels, and the by-products of this method of power generation are destroying our atmosphere.

Source: Vox

The addition of greenhouse gases has put the Earth in a dangerous situation. These gases trap heat energy within the atmosphere and raise the temperature of the surface. Experts estimate that a mere two degrees Celsius rise in global temperature would lead to melted polar ice caps and global flooding.

Ideal for Remote Locations

The ITER wants this technology to become a significant part of the world’s solution for energy. While it is not a portable reactor, the technology that it creates could be put into a more mobile form.

Source: Flickr/Ib Aarmo

The limitation of most modern reactors is that they need a constant source of fuel and a way to dispose of waste. A tokamak reactor avoids this by using superheated plasma, making it ideal for more remote locations.

A Large Capacity for Power Generation

The ITER is slated to have a better production capacity than existing reactors. According to ITER’s page, it is supposed to produce as much as 500MW of power from a 50 MW input, multiplying that input power ten times over.

Source: Flickr/mbgrigby

In comparison, fossil fuels are terribly inefficient. Coal only produces 33% of the input fuel’s energy as output. Petroleum is also only 33% efficient in its energy production as well. The tokamak reactor could change how efficient energy production works.

Safer Than Other Technologies

Most people who have reservations about nuclear reactor technology have seen the fallout from disasters. Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and Fukushima are good examples of how the current technology can fail and cause untold disasters.

Source: Flickr/IAEA Imagebank

Luckily, the Tokamak reactor isn’t the same type of reactor, and it offers many safety advantages over a typical water-cooled fission reactor. Even the technology to generate energy is different between them.

Fission vs. Fusion

The most significant difference between the Tokamak and water-cooled reactors is how their cores work. Tokamaks use fusion to generate electricity, fusing heavy hydrogen atoms into helium and using the excess energy from that reaction to heat water into steam, turning turbines and creating electricity.

Source: Flickr/Dan Boss

Fission cores use fuel rods of radioactive materials, like uranium or plutonium. These rods are placed between other control rods that control the speed of the reactor. Unfortunately, disasters can happen in this type of reactor in several situations, making them very unsafe to operate.

Not The Only Competitors

ITER isn’t the only one looking to solve the problem of affordable fusion energy. Several other startups have been chasing this dream with different methodologies that offer their own promise. If even one of them makes a breakthrough, they could corner the energy market.

Source: Flickr/Governor Jay Inslee

As these companies are for-profit entities, they are funded on the premise of making this breakthrough. As a result, they are on a much stricter deadline than the ITER. They are also not limited to a single country, with companies being founded in the US and China to pursue this research.

Breakthroughs Happen Often

Fusion energy is the cutting edge of energy technology, and it has seen a lot of recent breakthroughs. This technology is still mostly unknown, but each new discovery builds scientists’ knowledge base even more.

Source: Flickr/Argonne National Laboratory

In December, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) in California made the first net-positive energy gain on a fusion reaction. The experiment showed a net gain on the energy used of 1.5 megajoules. It’s not a huge amount, but it’s a start.

Fusion Could Do More Than Just Power the Planet

With space exploration getting a lot of attention right now, fusion technology might also enhance this technological innovation. Fusion technology could power colonies on far-flung planets like Mars or interstellar ships.

Source: Flickr/Kevin Gill

This sort of technology will allow the world to rely less on scarce, non-renewable resources and focus more on providing for people. Moreover, with so many companies eagerly working on finding a viable solution, it’s only a matter of time until it becomes a reality.

Not A Silver Bullet

It’s nice to think that a single technology could solve many of the world’s problems, but that’s not always true. It may still be a long time before ITER or one of the private companies researching the technology have a working, competitive fusion reactor.

Source: Becker1999

The world already has a lot of problems to deal with, but removing one of them by giving us energy independence is the start of something huge. Fusion technology offers a grand promise for the future.

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Sally Reed

Written by Sally Reed

Sally, a dynamic and viral writer, has taken the literary world by storm with her exceptional storytelling prowess. With an uncanny ability to tap into the collective consciousness of her readers, she crafts narratives that resonate deeply and linger long after the last word is read.

Born with a creative spirit, Sally honed her writing skills from a young age, cultivating a unique voice that blends emotion, wit, and social insight. Her work spans a wide spectrum, from poignant short stories that tug at the heartstrings to thought-provoking essays that challenge conventional thinking.

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