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30 nations sign international fusion reactor deal

ITER moves forward

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More than 30 countries today signed a deal greenlighting the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) - a €10bn project to be built in Cadarache, near Marseille, Reuters reports.

Those attending the signing ceremony at the Elysee Palace in Paris, hosted by Jacques Chirac, were China, European Union members, India, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and the US. Chirac declared: "If nothing changes, humanity will have consumed, in 200 years, most of the fossil fuel resources accumulated over hundreds of millions of years. It [ITER] is the victory of the general interest of humanity."

The plan behind ITER is, as The Register's Lucy Sherriff previously explained, to finally crack the problem of how to tap into the immense power of nuclear fusion. Fusion is the same process that goes on in the centre of the Sun, and it holds the promise of almost inexhaustible, clean, safe energy generation.

For nuclei to fuse, a plasma needs to be heated up to several hundred million degrees while it is contained within an intense magnetic field. The trick will be finding a way of doing this without putting in more energy than is generated.

According to the ITER blurb, the reaction device is "based on the tokamak* concept, in which a hot gas is confined in a torus-shaped vessel using a magnetic field. The gas is heated to over 100 million degrees, and will produce 500 MW of fusion power".

All well and good, but sceptics claim that a viable, commercial reactor is years away (35, at least) - if the technology works as advertised. China recently claimed to have test fired a tokamak fusion reactor in which "deuterium and tritium atoms had been fused together at a temperature of 100 million degrees celsius for nearly three seconds". Whether the boffins had to pump in more energy than they got out was not noted. ®

Additional technical info

*According to the The Internet Plasma Physics Education Experience's handy guide, a tokomak is:

The most successful and promising fusion confinement device...The word tokamak is actually an acronym derived from the Russian words toroid-kamera-magnit-katushka, meaning "the toroidal chamber and magnetic coil". This donut-shaped configuration is principally characterised by a large current, up to several million amperes, which flows through the plasma. The plasma is heated to temperatures more than a hundred million degrees centigrade (much hotter than the core of the Sun) by high-energy particle beams or radio-frequency waves.

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