Advantages of fusion
On Earth, the fuel for fusion reactors will be two forms (isotopes) of hydrogen gas: deuterium and tritium. There are around 33 milligrammes of deuterium in every litre of water. If all the deuterium in a litre of water was fused with tritium it would provide energy equivalent to 340 litres of petrol! The natural abundance of tritium on Earth is extremely low, therefore inside the fusion reactor it will be produced from lithium: a light and abundant metal.
As well as using an almost limitless fuel supply, no transport of radioactive materials would be needed for the day-to-day running of a fusion power plant. The plant should be inherently safe, with runaway or meltdown accidents impossible. The fusion process will not create greenhouse gases or long-lasting radioactive waste. Fusion power may offer a continuous base-load power supply that is sustainable and large scale.
To produce fusion, the tritium and deuterium must be heated to 150 million ºC. This results in a high-temperature ‘electrically-charged gas’ called a plasma. For continuous fusion power, the plasma must be controlled, heated and contained using powerful magnetic fields.
At the heart of the ITER experiment will be the world’s largest tokamak. A tokamak is a torus or ‘doughnut-shaped’ device – essentially a continuous tube. The first tokamak was conceived in Moscow in the 1960s and was designed specifically to create an intricate but ingenious magnetic cage to confine the high-energy plasma.
Europe has been a leader in fusion research for 50 years.
All of Europe’s fusion research is coordinated by the European Commission. Funding comes from the Community’s Euratom Research Framework Programme and national funds from the Member States and Switzerland. The co-ordination and the long-term continuity is ensured by contracts between Euratom and the national partners.
This joint approach has allowed all European countries to participate and contribute to the largest and currently most successful fusion experiment in the world – JET (the Joint European Torus). The basic design of ITER follows on from that of the JET device.