LAUSANNE Switzerland is punching above its weight in its participation in a project to build the world’s largest fusion reactor.
The project, known as ITER (formerly International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor), is designed to demonstrate the scientific and technological feasibility of fusion power – it should be able to produce ten times the amount of energy put in. The seven ITER partners include the European Union, China, Japan, India, Russia, South Korea and the United States; Switzerland is considered part of the EU partnership via a separate treaty.
Switzerland’s participation, both financial and research, makes it the largest fusion player in Europe, contributing far more than the US. In fact, the EU is contributing 45% of the costs with the other six parties adding 9% each. “Switzerland’s involvement is proportionally larger than its size in quality and quantity,” commented Ambrogio Fasoli, director of the EPFL’s plasma research centre in Lausanne. “We have a large tokamak experiment,” he added, explaining that a tokamak is a cage that uses magnetic fields to trap plasma and confine it long enough to produce energy. The Swiss experiment will be used in the largest tokamak reactor ever built, currently under construction in southern France and expected to be operational by 2020. Experiments are planned to continue until around 2037. Two of the 35 member nations expressed an interest in hosting the project – France and Japan. The former won, with the proviso that the director general would be Japanese. According to some sources, this has led to inefficiencies.
Fusion is the process that powers the sun and the stars, and fusion research is aimed at developing a safe, abundant and environmentally responsible energy source.Fusion technology is often confused with fission, a misconception used by politicians reluctant to spend the billions needed for fusion reactors and to abandon less expensive energy projects such as fracking. The basic scientific difference is that fission is the splitting of one atom into two or more smaller ones, while fusion means fusing two or more smaller atoms into a larger one. “What we are trying to do is produce and tame a little star here on earth in order to obtain energy with no environmental harm,” said Fasoli.
It is the clean aspect of fusion that should prove of public interest. Nuclear fission produces highly radioactive particles, while fusion creates few radioactive particles. Last May, at an EPFL conference on the plasma centre’s progress, EPFL vice president Philippe Gillet said, “Following the 2011 Fukushima nuclear reactor disaster, Switzerland has confirmed its commitment to fusion research while gradually stepping out of nuclear fission.” Part of the EPFL project includes training nuclear engineers to safely decommission nuclear fission facilities.
China, which has a number of research tokamaks, told the conference that Beijing is aggressively trying to speed up its own work on ITER to address its own growing demand for energy. And James Van Dam of the US Department of Energy was adamant about fusion’s importance. “It is 14 million times more efficient than coal, 7 million times more efficient than oil and 4 million times more efficient than nuclear fission.”
The EPFL project has the full support of Bern, despite some grumblings in German-speaking cantons that such an important centre is located in Suisse Romande. Fasoli, an Italian physicist from Milan, believes it makes sense to concentrate research in one place “rather than have one center in Zurich, one in Bern and another in Lausanne. But we try to involve the others as much as we can.” No one knows precisely how much the project will cost, but the original budget of €5 billion has almost trebled as a result of raw material price increases and design changes. Like the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, this is a project that will run and run.