This giant magnet could be a new source of zero carbon energy


  • Nuclear fusion could provide unlimited clean, carbon-free electricity.
  • So far, experiments have failed to maintain the reaction for long enough.
  • But now a giant magnet is at the heart of an attempt to make fusion energy a reality.

Imagine almost unlimited clean, carbon-free electricity. It is the dream that prompts scientists to build the world’s largest magnet.

the ITER project in the south of France pushes the limits of nuclear fusion, a reaction in which atoms fuse together, releasing enormous amounts of heat. This is the process that powers the sun, but so far it has only been achieved on Earth by very short bursts in experimental reactors.

The hope is that by using a strong magnetic field to control the plasma created by the fusion reaction, it can be maintained long enough to heat water to produce steam to drive a turbogenerator.

Not that ITER has to power the grid anytime soon. What they are 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 stage will be to build a prototype power plant.

Unlike conventional fission nuclear power plants, smelting produces virtually no harmful waste and emits no carbon dioxide. A fusion reaction creates helium gas. It is 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 power generation,” John Smith, director of engineering and projects at General Atomics, the company that builds the magnet, says Live Science.

“It offers a safe, clean and always active resource that produces no emissions or long-lived waste,” he added.

Fusion hotter than the sun

Starting a fusion reaction is very energy intensive. The fuel must be pressurized and heated to extremely high temperatures to create a plasma – similar to a gas but almost a million times less dense than air.

Inside the European JET tokamak during (right) and after the operation

We have plasma! Inside the European JET tokamak during (right) and after the operation.

Image: ITER / JET

A big challenge is therefore to ensure that the new fusion reactor creates more energy than it consumes. the current world record for fusion power is owned by the European experimental tokamak called JET which needed 24 megawatts of heating power to produce 16 megawatts of fusion power.

But ITER scientists are optimistic their new donut-shaped reactor will do better. Once the reaction starts, they say the fusion will generate intense heat – 150 million degrees centigrade – 10 times hotter than the core of the Sun.

The 18-meter-high magnet, known as the center solenoid, will weigh 907 tons when completed and generate a magnetic field 280,000 times stronger than 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

Magnet is already leaving the factory in San Diego, California, where it was built to Houston, Texas, from where it will be transported by boat to Marseille for its last road trip to the ITER site near Aix-en-Provence.

It will be joined there by another giant component, the world’s largest superconducting coil that will wrap around the reactor core, being manufactured in Japan by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, a strategic partner of the World Economic Forum.

In total, the project involves 35 countries including the United States, France, China, European Union, India, Japan, Korea, Russia, and the United Kingdom, which between them have produced more than one million components for the new factory.

Switching to clean energy is key to tackling climate change, but over the past five years, the energy transition has stalled.

Energy consumption and production contributes two-thirds of global emissions, and 81% of the world’s energy system is still based on fossil fuels, the same percentage as 30 years ago. In addition, 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 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 for a successful transition. The World Economic Forum’s Energy Transition Index, which ranks 115 economies on how they balance energy security and access with environmental sustainability and affordability, shows that the biggest challenge facing the energy transition is the lack of preparedness among the world’s largest emitters, including the United States, China, India and Russia. The 10 countries with the highest preparedness scores represent only 2.6% of global annual emissions.

To sustain the global energy system, the Forum’s Shaping the Future of Energy and Materials platform works on initiatives such as system efficiency, innovation and clean energy and the Global Battery Alliance to encourage and enable investment. , innovative energy technologies and solutions.

In addition, the Mission Possible Platform (MPP) works to bring together public and private partners to continue the industry transition to put the heavy industry and mobility sectors on a net zero emission path. MPP is an initiative created by the World Economic Forum and the Commission on Energy Transitions.

Does your organization want to work with the World Economic Forum? Find out more here.

ITER scientists say over 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 ITER Tokamak should be ready to generate its first plasma in December 2025.


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