Giants of Science – The National Fusion Lab: Capturing the Sun’s Energy

In this episode of Gigantes de la Ciencia we travel to Madrid, where we visit the CIEMAT fusion reactor and discover the secrets of the energy of the future

If you look around you, you will realize that almost all of our energy comes in one form or another from the sun. Plants capture energy from the sun through photosynthesis. Oil and natural gas are the buried remains of prehistoric plants. The energy of wind, rivers and sea waves we owe to the temperature changes that the sun produces on the Earth’s surface. But. What if we had direct access to the sun’s energy? What if we could create a miniature sun on Earth? Believe it or not, this is already happening very close to you. Welcome to the National Fusion Laboratory.

This unique scientific and technical infrastructure (ICTS) is located in Madrid, at the headquarters of CIEMAT, Center for Energy, Environmental and Technological Research. Here, next to the Complutense University, there is a nuclear fusion reactor, the TJ-II. LNF research, at European and international level, focuses on the study of plasmas confined at high temperature and, on the other hand, on the technology necessary for the construction and operation of fusion reactors: materials, superconductors, tritium generation, extraction of energy, maintenance, etc.

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“The National Fusion Laboratory approaches one of the great challenges of humanity in the 21st century, which is to imagine and shape the future of a society that has a new source of energy, nuclear fusion energy, in a practical way”, explains the director of the LNF, nuclear physicist Carlos Hidalgo Vera. «The fusion community has already demonstrated that achieving the union of light nuclei to generate heavier nuclei and that in this nuclear reaction process there is a mass deficit which, multiplied by the speed of light squared (E=mc2), gives a energy efficiency that is second to none. It is the highest that happens in nature.

Carlos Hidalgo, director of LNF, on JT-II

Carlos Hidalgo, director of the LNF, at TJ-II

The nuclear energy we use today is fission and is obtained by splitting the nuclei of heavy atoms such as uranium or plutonium. In contrast, nuclear fusion uses light atoms like hydrogen, the simplest and most abundant element in the universe. When two hydrogen atoms fuse to create a helium atom, an enormous amount of energy is released. There is only one downside to convincing atoms to stick together. You have to reproduce the conditions inside the sun.

Nuclear fusion

Nuclear Fusion: Heavy hydrogen atoms (deuterium and tritium) fuse together to produce helium.

“If we think about what we need to achieve to make a nuclear fusion reactor viable, if we realize that we need to deal with matter in extreme conditions with temperatures ten times higher than the temperature of the center of the sun and that we need to use intense magnetic fields 100,000 times the magnetic field from the earth. Without going into too many technical details, I think society understands that this is not easy”, says Hidalgo. This immense challenge transforms competition between countries into cooperation. “When we face great challenges, the pillar of cooperation prevails over competitiveness. that the story of nuclear fusion is a story of great international cooperation, once scientists and technologists are aware of the great challenge”, he adds.

Currently, nuclear fusion is not commercially viable because it still consumes more energy than the fusion reaction produces. But there is a great worldwide project to achieve it called ITER, of which the National Fusion Laboratory is an essential part. According to Carlos Hidalgo, “the objective of ITER is to demonstrate that we can amplify energy. A factor of ten. We put in one unit and remove ten. We think these goals are what we need to convince ourselves that this is a scientific-technological reality. The next step after ITER will be the construction of an experimental nuclear fusion plant, which is what we call a demonstration.”

The race to make nuclear fusion possible is an example of unprecedented international cooperation. Scientists and engineers from the European Union, who represent 45% of the project, participate from the United States, China, Japan, South Korea, India, as well as Russia and Ukraine. In the reactor we can see the components developed by these countries.

“All the systems developed and in operation on this TJ-II stelerator all have their own history”, says Hidalgo, pointing to a kind of huge coil that is a cesium ion injector. “It is an experimental system developed in collaboration with the Kharkiv Institute of Physics in Ukraine and the Kurchatov Institute of Technology in Moscow, Russia. It is a collaboration that goes back more than 20 years, a successful collaboration that in the current circumstances has a very important symbolic value”.

Inside the reactor, at a temperature of 150 million degrees, matter is no longer solid, liquid or gaseous, but plasma a soup of high-energy ions and electrons so that the plasma does not escape or touch the walls of the reactor. . He is trapped inside a powerful magnetic field. Precisely the study of plasma is one of the fundamental missions of the National Fusion Laboratory within ITER.

ITER

Representation of the ITER reactor in which the magnetic field containing the plasma can be seen.

“There is an inevitable transmission of energy to the peripheral zone”, says Hidalgo. “It is one of the great challenges of nuclear fusion. It is deposited in the form of particles that eventually can be energetic and in the form of energy flows with a power density that can reach values ​​of 10 20 megawatts per square meter, which are values ​​that are really at the limit of what material technology current can support”.

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Although nuclear fusion was first achieved in the laboratory in 1932, the obstacles to its development so far are technological. That’s why a very close collaboration between physicists and engineers is needed. This obliges the LNF team to be multidisciplinary. “We deal with all the multiple aspects that are involved to make nuclear fusion a viable source in the future. We are approximately 150 professionals among physical and technical engineers as key communities. But we are 150 professionals who are strongly connected to a network of collaborators in academia, universities and national R&D centers, on the one hand, and who are strongly connected to an industrial network of collaborators in a different sphere, but absolutely vital for development of the nuclear fusion industry.”

Collaboration with industry in Spain is one of LNF’s greatest successes. For Hidalgo, “this strategy, which I believe to be sensible and extremely successful, has allowed the Spanish industry to currently position itself in third place in the European panorama of contracts won, in the construction of ITER components, after France, which is the host, and Italy, with a volume of contracts awarded to Spanish companies in the order of 1,300 million euros. It is a result that 10, 20 years ago no one could have imagined would be a reality.”

Nuclear fusion is the promise of clean and practically inexhaustible energy. The fuels are hydrogen isotopes, deuterium, which is extracted from sea water, and tritium, which can be obtained from particle accelerators. There is no hazardous waste. Despite the very high temperatures. It is impossible for a fusion reactor to explode because it uses minimal amounts of matter to produce energy. The question is whether this energy will arrive in time to save the planet from climate change?

“No, fusion energy won’t take long,” says Carlos Hidalgo emphatically. “It won’t even be the magic solution. It will be an additional ingredient that is supplemented by other sources of energy. They are all needed. We’ve been at an energy crossroads for years now, and of course we have to move away from the dominant energies, which are fossil fuels, which have these undesirable effects of greenhouse gases.

There is still a way to go. For Hidalgo, “there are no magic solutions. I believe that all energy sources will be needed. Solar and wind green energies will be needed, which to implement them properly need developments and resolve open issues in energy storage. And nine new massive sources of energy are needed, such as nuclear fusion.” For the director of the LFN, this is a necessary service to humanity: “Let us not forget that at this energy crossroads, there are two new ingredients that dominate everything. is the demographic aspect. Large emerging countries. India. More than 1,000 million people who have the right to improve their standard of living, and who require enormous energy resources because they are a large number of human beings. And the second factor is the right that all human beings have to achieve levels of dignity, and the level of well-being in our society is strongly correlated with energy consumption.

There’s a joke among scientists that we’re 30 years away from having fusion power, and we always will. However, there are many signs that the finish line is closer than ever. For Carlos Hidalgo, it is necessary to have a perspective before falling into pessimism: “Whenever we talk about the deadline to make our dreams come true, I mention the great Leonardo Da Vinci. Perhaps many people don’t know that there was a dream in Leonardo da Vinci’s life, which was to fly. He made projects that never work. It took 500 years for humans to capture what I believe is the most impressive image in human history. When the Voyager spacecraft in the 1970s reaches the edges of the solar system, the spacecraft’s camera turns around and takes that iconic photo which is a great blackness, with a pale blue dot that you have to look for to find it, which is ours. planet”.

a pale blue dot

A pale blue dot. Source: NASA

“Now everything is going faster,” explains Hidalgo. “Now, at the pace of innovation, of technology, that won’t happen in 100 years. Now it happens every few years. But the message is that to make dreams come true, as far as possible, you have to be patient, you have to make an effort, you have to allocate resources and you have to have sustained policies to make those dreams come true . It’s very good that a generation works so that another generation benefits from developments and perhaps from the times we live in immediacy, it’s not bad to remember».

Carlos Hidalgo leaves with a prognosis: Y2a we won’t have to wait hundreds of years. Nuclear fusion must be in our hands, operational in the second half of the 21st century.”

Will we ever see a world with clean and inexhaustible energy? The answer is in the hands of researchers who work tirelessly in centers such as the CIEMAT National Fusion Laboratory, a veritable giant of science.

Gigantes da Ciência is a project of the magazine and newspaper Quo, directed by Dario Pescador. This project is made possible with the support of FECYTSpanish Foundation for Science and Technology of the Ministry of Science and Innovation, and Sponsorship and logistical support from Nissan.

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