Recently, I found myself engaged in a discussion about electric cars and the future of energy. As I spoke with other German managers, not one of us could really offer any good reasons why electric cars are better than cars utilizing combustion engines. Electricity is mostly derived from coal fired power stations, so how can electrically powered cars be any better? Fast forward to 2050 and imagine a world of relatively endless, safe and cheap energy – sourced from electricity – but before we go there a quick history lesson.
Back in 1985, the USSR proposed an international fusion-energy project. It was towards the end of the cold war – a time of Reagan and Gorbachev, nuclear disarmament and Perestroika. It would be followed by the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Russian nuclear technology in 1969 was far superior to what western scientists possessed and today their Tokamak reactor technology remains at the heart of the international fusion-energy project called ITER, meaning “the way” in Latin, that began at the end of the cold war and prior to the formation of the European Union.
Construction of the ITER fusion-energy facility began in 2005 in Cadarache, France – 75km north east of Marseille, and is located in the region of Provence. More than 34 nations – representing more than half the world’s population – are involved in the project. This includes Russia, the U.S., South Korea, the EU, India, China and Japan.
Over the next few years, over a million individual components will be delivered and assembled like a large Lego model about the size of 81 swimming pools combined. The reactor itself will stand at over 30 metres high and there will be enough cabling at ITER to wrap around the Earth 15 times. For every 50 megawatts of electricity it uses, it should generate up to 500mw of power output and will reach temperatures of 100 million degrees centigrade during normal operation and up to 300 million degrees centigrade during first plasma.
First plasma is targeted for 2022. This is essentially the fusion of the core hydrogen isotopes of deuterium and tritium, which will drive the nuclear reaction and are the source of nuclear fuel. Deuterium or heavy water is found in salt water and tritium is produced by activating neutrons in lithium, which is a key metal used in heat-resistant glass, ceramics and batteries. Both sources are prevalent and much safer than uranium based fission technology which remains highly radioactive for thousands of years compared to fusion based radioactivity lasting approximately five to ten years. See: Fission vs Fusion and Fusion Safety
If all goes well the first demonstration power plant using nuclear fusion could be ready by 2030 with commercial reactors that will be built around 2050. Many experts believe nuclear fusion is the only way to generate industrial-scale quantities of electricity day and night without relying on carbon based fossil fuels or dangerous and dirty conventional nuclear power. What do you think?
Images sourced from Wikipedia and ITER.
Other sources of information: The Independent UK – One Giant Leap for Mankind
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