Sunday, November 27, 2022

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The world’s largest “artificial sun” is getting closer to reality

A key part of what will be the world’s largest nuclear fusion experiment has been made in China, marking a breakthrough in an international project that is moving ever closer to completion.

The fusion reactor in question, known as ITER (Latin for “the way”), is under construction in France and will significantly exceed the largest experimental fusion reactors currently in operation – the Joint European Torus (JET) in UK and European joint – Japanese JT-60SA in Japan – weighing around 23,000 tons, while standing nearly 30 meters tall when completed.

Scientists around the world are trying to develop viable nuclear fusion reactors in hopes of creating a clean and virtually limitless carbon-free energy source that could prove to be the future of energy as nations try to wean off fossil fuels.

To do this, researchers are trying to harness nuclear fusion, the process that takes place at the center of stars. This process involves the fusion of two lighter atomic nuclei to form a heavier one, which releases an enormous amount of energy.

The main objective of fusion reactors – sometimes called “artificial suns” – like ITER is to demonstrate that they can produce much more energy than the energy supplied to initiate the reaction process, which results in a gain power. But to date, no design has achieved this goal.

Huge, stadium-sized experimental reactors have been built at various sites around the world at great expense. But producing sustained fusion power is incredibly difficult, and progress in this area has been slow. Research on fusion reactors began in the 1940s.

The ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor) project, based in Cadarache, southern France, is an unprecedented international collaboration of 35 countries including the United States, China, the 27 countries of the European Union, the Kingdom United Kingdom, Switzerland, India, Japan, the Republic of Korea and Russia, which together account for about half of the world’s population.

Europe is responsible for most of the construction costs – around 45% – while the other countries each contribute around 9%. Rather than simply providing funding, countries contribute to the ITER project by providing completed building components, systems or infrastructure, as is the case with China’s latest manufacturing stage.

On Tuesday, Chinese state media reported that fabrication of a full-scale prototype of a component known as an Enhanced Heat Flow (EHF) first-wall (FW) panel had been completed as its indicators keys met the design requirements.

The full-scale prototype of the EHF FW was developed by the Southwestern Institute of Physics, which is affiliated with the state-run China National Nuclear Corporation.

The ITER reactor is a “tokamak”, an experimental device that uses powerful magnetic fields to confine and control plasma, a fundamental form of superheated matter, and to harness the energy produced by nuclear fusion reactions in a vacuum chamber in donut shape.

When the experimental reactor is operational, the plasma housed inside the doughnut-shaped chamber will be superheated to 150 million degrees Celsius, about 10 times hotter than the hottest parts of the sun. EHF FW panels must be able to withstand these temperatures.

When completed, ITER will be the largest tokamak in the world, capable of holding 10 times the plasma volume of the largest facilities in operation today.

The $22 billion project, which has been dogged by spiraling costs and delays, is currently expected to enter service in 2025, but that start date is expected to be pushed back.

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