This giant magnet could unlock zero-carbon electricity from nuclear fusion

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Douglas Broom, Senior Writer, Formative Content

  • Nuclear fusion could provide unlimited clean zero-carbon electricity.
  • Up to now, experiments have failed to keep the reaction going for long enough.
  • But now a giant magnet is at the core of an attempt to make fusion power a reality.
  • Imagine almost limitless clean, carbon-free electricity. That’s the dream that’s driving scientists to build the world’s biggest magnet.

    The ITER project in southern France is pushing the boundaries of nuclear fusion, a reaction in which atoms are fused releasing enormous amounts of heat. It’s the process that powers the sun, but so far it’s only been achieved on Earth in very short bursts in experimental reactors.

    The hope is that, by using a powerful magnetic field to control the plasma created by the fusion reaction, it can be sustained long enough to heat water to produce steam to drive a turbine generator.

    Not that ITER is due to power the grid any time soon. What they’re building is a Tokamak – an experimental machine designed to harness the energy produced by fusion. If this stage of the project is successful, the next step will be to build a prototype power plant.

    Unlike conventional fission nuclear power plants, fusion produces virtually no harmful waste and emits zero carbon dioxide. A fusion reaction creates helium gas. It’s also renewable – the fuel sources, deuterium and tritium, are derived from hydrogen and can be extracted from seawater.

    “Fusion is one of the few potential options for large-scale carbon-free energy production,” John Smith, director of engineering and projects at General Atomics, the company building the magnet, told Live Science.

    “It offers a safe, clean, always-on resource that produces no emissions or long-lived waste products,” he added.

    Fusion hotter than the Sun

    Starting a fusion reaction is very energy intensive. The fuel must be pressurised and heated to extremely high temperatures to create a plasma – similar to a gas but nearly one million times less dense than air.

    Inside the European JET Tokamak during (right) and after operation
    We have plasma! Inside the European JET Tokamak during (right) and after operation. Image: ITER/JET

    So a big challenge is to ensure that the new fusion reactor creates more energy than it uses. The current world record for fusion power is held by the European experimental Tokamak called JET which needed 24 megawatts of heating power to produce 16 megawatts of fusion power.

    But the ITER scientists are optimistic that their new doughnut-shaped reactor will do better. Once the reaction is started, they say fusion will generate intense heat – 150 million degrees Centigrade – 10 times hotter than the core of the Sun.

    The 18 metre tall magnet, known as the central solenoid, will weigh in at 907 tonnes when its complete and will generate a magnetic field 280,000 times stronger than the Earth’s magnetic field – strong enough to lift an aircraft carrier into the air.

    a diagram of the reactor showing the magnet and the plasma
    The magnet (blue) is at the heart of the reactor, surrounded by the coil containing the plasma (purple). Image: ITER

    The magnet is already on the move from the factory in San Diego, California, where it was built to Houston, Texas, from where it will be taken by ship to Marseille for its final road journey to the ITER site near Aix-en-Provence.

    It will be joined there by another giant component, the world’s largest superconducting coil which will wrap around the reactor core, being manufactured in Japan by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, a World Economic Forum strategic partner.

    In all, the project involves 35 countries including the US, France, China, the European Union, India, Japan, Korea, Russia and the UK, who between them have manufactured more than one million components for the new plant.

    What’s the World Economic Forum doing about the transition to clean energy?

    Moving to clean energy is key to combating climate change, yet in the past five years, the energy transition has stagnated.

    Energy consumption and production contribute to two-thirds of global emissions, and 81% of the global energy system is still based on fossil fuels, the same percentage as 30 years ago. Plus, improvements in the energy intensity of the global economy (the amount of energy used per unit of economic activity) are slowing. In 2018 energy intensity improved by 1.2%, the slowest rate since 2010.

    Effective policies, private-sector action and public-private cooperation are needed to create a more inclusive, sustainable, affordable and secure global energy system.

    Benchmarking progress is essential to a successful transition. The World Economic Forum’s Energy Transition Index, which ranks 115 economies on how well they balance energy security and access with environmental sustainability and affordability, shows that the biggest challenge facing energy transition is the lack of readiness among the world’s largest emitters, including US, China, India and Russia. The 10 countries that score the highest in terms of readiness account for only 2.6% of global annual emissions.

    To future-proof the global energy system, the Forum’s Shaping the Future of Energy and Materials Platform is working on initiatives including, Systemic Efficiency, Innovation and Clean Energy and the Global Battery Alliance to encourage and enable innovative energy investments, technologies and solutions.

    Additionally, the Mission Possible Platform (MPP) is working to assemble public and private partners to further the industry transition to set heavy industry and mobility sectors on the pathway towards net-zero emissions. MPP is an initiative created by the World Economic Forum and the Energy Transitions Commission.

    Is your organisation interested in working with the World Economic Forum? Find out more here.

    ITER scientists say that more than 99% of the Universe exists as plasma, including interstellar matter, stars and the Sun. On Earth, plasmas are used in neon tubes, for lightning and in plasma televisions. In nature they create the northern lights (aurora borealis).

    If all goes well, the Tokamak at ITER should be ready to generate it’s first plasma in December 2025.

    the sting Milestones

    Featured Stings

    Can we feed everyone without unleashing disaster? Read on

    These campaigners want to give a quarter of the UK back to nature

    How to build a more resilient and inclusive global system

    Stopping antimicrobial resistance would cost just USD 2 per person a year

    5 challenges for government adoption of AI

    A Sting Exclusive: “Sustainable development goals: what role for business?” Commissioner Mimica asks live from European Business Summit 2015

    Christmas spending: Who can afford not to cut?

    How teaching ‘future resilient’ skills can help workers adapt to automation

    High-Level Forum on providing protection to Afghans at risk

    How India is harnessing technology to lead the Fourth Industrial Revolution

    It’s time to end the stigma around mental health in the workplace

    Yes, together we can make a change! YO!Fest and EYE 2016

    More urgency needed to help increasing numbers ‘locked out’, before 2030, says UN’s Bachelet

    Climate change is forcing 20 million people a year from their homes, Oxfam says

    COVID-19 has been a setback for women. Gender-responsive policies can stem the losses

    Gig workers among the hardest hit by coronavirus pandemic

    This Brooklyn farm company is training a new generation of urban farmers

    Empathic AI could be the next stage in human evolution – if we get it right

    UN chief urges emergency fund support as one of the ‘most effective investments’ in humanitarian action

    LGBTQ+: The social evolution of a minority

    EU job-search aid worth €9.9 million for 1,858 former Air France workers

    Armed groups threaten every child in Central African Republic, UNICEF warns

    Inegalitarian taxation on labour haunts Europe’s social model

    Here’s how one business leader is tackling injustice: It starts with personal commitment

    To my Chinese friend

    UN agency warns conditions around Yemen’s key port city of Hudaydah still ‘very bad’, as staff rush to deliver aid

    Commission launches debate on responding to the impact of an ageing population

    Honeybees are transforming the lives of mangrove farmers in Viet Nam – here’s how

    Migration crisis update: mutual actions and solidarity needed as anti-migrant policies thrive

    India vs Virus: voices from the COVID front line

    Coronavirus: 70% of the EU adult population fully vaccinated

    Azeri natural gas will keep the EU warm soon

    Black Lives Matter – for Pakistan’s Sheedi community too

    Go early, go hard and keep it simple: how Senegal is staying ahead of the COVID-19 pandemic

    Busting the myths about coronavirus

    4 key steps to decommissioning coal-fired power plants

    Coronavirus response: Team Europe supports Somalia with three EU Humanitarian Air Bridge flights

    ‘Huge’ stakes, ‘daunting’ job to tackle gender-based violence, UNICEF chief tells ground-breaking conference

    We need tech solutions that value human interaction more than ever

    European Commission adopts new tools for safe exchanges of personal data

    Health Systems and Society: ways to reinforce the human power during the pandemic

    Eight years after Fukushima, nuclear power is making a comeback

    World Wildlife Day: UN chief urges ‘more caring’ relationship with nature

    US – Russia bargain on Syria, Ukraine but EU kept out

    How COVID-19 is driving a long-overdue revolution in education

    Portugal: €4.66 million in aid for 1,460 dismissed workers and jobless young

    ‘A new chapter’ dawns for democracy in Guinea-Bissau: top UN official

    Statement by Executive Vice-President Margrethe Vestager on the Commission’s proposal for a new Regulation to address distortions caused by foreign subsidies in the Single Market

    5 surprising ways major cities are going green

    The right approach to addressing overcapacity problem from a Chinese perspective

    WEF Davos 2016 LIVE: “Chinese economy has great potential, resilience and ample space for policy adjustment”, China’s Vice President Li Yuanchao reassures from Davos

    New neighbours: Could Venus really be home to alien life?

    Remarks by Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevičius on the Zero Pollution Action Plan

    Chart of the day: When do young Europeans leave home?

    UN chief condemns attack targeting international forces in northern Mali

    Emotional stability and the COVID-19 pandemic: is it possible to reconcile them?

    Volkswagen scandal update: “We want clarity fast, but it is equally important to have the complete picture”, Commission’s spokesperson underscores from Brussels

    Nordic noir: The unhappiness epidemic affecting young people in the world’s happiest countries

    Climate change: cutting the good by the root?

    Why the global trade of chemicals is key to COVID-19 recovery

    What does the future of energy look like, how do we get there, and who will benefit?

    Brexit: PM May must hush Boris Johnson to unlock the negotiations

    Eurozone needs more than some decimals of growth

    GSMA Reveals Global Partners for MWC21 Barelona

    More Stings?

    Speak your Mind Here

    Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

    You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

    Google photo

    You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

    Twitter picture

    You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

    Facebook photo

    You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

    Connecting to %s

    %d bloggers like this: