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

    The EU Parliament slams Commission on economic governance

    Antitrust: Commission sends Statement of Objections to O2 CZ, CETIN and T-Mobile CZ for their network sharing agreement

    Take Care of In Order to Be Taken Care of

    3 reasons why embracing the circular economy can be powerful for middle income countries

    6 innovative technologies about to transform our infrastructure

    Why growth is now a one way road for Eurozone

    Female leaders warn about the erosion of women’s rights

    Statement by Frans Timmermans, Executive Vice-President for the European Green Deal, on the announcement to postpone the COP26

    Halt death sentences on children, UN rights expert urge Saudi authorities

    This is how Britain saved some of its most precious wildlife from the threat of extinction

    How to put people at the heart of your company’s COVID-19 response

    ‘Whole spectrum of Afghan society’ must get behind peace talks, UN envoy tells Security Council

    EU regions get additional 47.5 billion EUR to tackle local effects of COVID-19

    These artists created a huge open library – and their idea’s gone global

    Commission refers Denmark to the Court for failing to fulfil its obligations in relation to the name “Feta”

    Mine action is at ‘the nexus’ of peace, security and development: UN official

    WEF Davos 2016 LIVE: The health of capitalism won’t be the only worry for those who head for Davos

    China’s stock markets show recovery signs while EU is closely watching in anticipation of the €10bn investment

    Does the Commission subsidise a forced labour scheme in Britain?

    One for all? Are physicians prepared to deliver care to the LGBTQIA+ community?

    UN chief lauds Fijians as ‘natural global leaders’ on climate, environment, hails ‘symbiotic relationship’ with land and sea

    How start-ups will lead India through the Fourth Industrial Revolution

    This one small change could transform education for millions

    Why rich countries are seeing more poverty

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

    EU approves close to €240 million to strengthen resilience in neighbouring countries hosting Syrian refugees in light of the coronavirus pandemic

    Third Facebook-Cambridge Analytica hearing: data breach prevention and cures

    De-escalate now, to steer Yemen off ‘precarious path’, UN Security Council hears

    Brexit: Six more months of political paralysis or a May-Corbyn compromise?

    Golden Pen of Freedom Awarded to Murdered Saudi Journalist Jamal Khashoggi during World News Media Congress 2019

    Questions and Answers on the EU Digital Covid Certificate

    The fires in the Brazilian amazon rainforest may be related to the increase in the number of hospitalizations for respiratory complications in the state of PARÁ

    Why does the whole world want Britain to stay in the EU?

    EU citizens disenchanted with Economic and Monetary Union over rising poverty and high unemployment

    Your next pair of sneakers could be made from coffee

    Mental health in times of a pandemic: what can each individual do to lessen the burden?

    Migration crisis: how big a security threat it is?

    Reducing deforestation means getting serious about environmental crime

    Security Council should ‘nurture’ Colombian consensus against return to violence, top UN official urges

    This is the most sustainable way to use fashion – and it’s not renting clothes

    Collaboration: the key to success in the digital economy

    Lessons in disaster relief from the world’s most cyclone-battered state

    Happy workers are more productive, research shows

    Women to save Europe’s own labour resources

    Food system failures in our age of abundance

    Tuesday’s Daily Brief: Libya civil war, African displacement, global trade tensions, terrorists’ children ‘secretly detained’, and more

    Trade, taxes and other takeaways from Li Keqiang’s speech to the World Economic Forum

    The European Sting @ European Business Summit 2014 – the preview

    UNICEF urges ‘transformative shift’ in family-friendly work policies to reap ‘huge’ benefits

    Ecofin: ‘The Friday battle’ for the banking union

    Boosting the EU’s green recovery: Commission invests €1 billion in innovative clean technology projects

    Guarantee of mental health’s stability in times of pandemic

    Mobile technology: health in your hands

    Digital Finance Package: Commission sets out new, ambitious approach to encourage responsible innovation to benefit consumers and businesses

    Parliament demands ban on neo-fascist and neo-Nazi groups in the EU

    The new era of Matriarchy?

    The role companies play in boosting growth in emerging markets

    A Sting Exclusive: “Our ambition is by 2020 Indonesia to become an emerging power of World’s Maritime Access”, reveals the Chargé d’Affaires at the Embassy of Indonesia in Brussels, treating WEF, ASEAN and EU-Indonesia relations on the eve of the World Economic Forum East Asia 2015 in Jakarta

    Want a sustainable business? Hire in talent

    Sustainable development demands a broader vision, says new OECD Development Centre report

    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