We’re Making a Miniature Star to Charge Your Iphone: Future of Fusion Reactors with ITER.


Charles "Logan" Rutledge, Writer/editor

Electrical energy is the backbone of modern society, powering everything from your Iphone to the world’s largest computers. However, the main source we generate this energy from, fossil fuels, are slowly damaging our environment and will eventually run out, thus we need to develop a replacement. Although we already have several different techniques for more sustainable energy such as solar cells and wind turbines, they are still a long way from out competing the fossil fuel industry, so we look to the immense power of the atom. Atomic energy is nothing new, but we may have a breakthrough on the horizon for the art of splitting, or in this case fusing the atom, with an experimental process called Fusion, and the ITER system on route to pioneer its potential.

ITER, which stands for International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, is an ongoing international project to create the world’s first self sustaining fusion reactor. Put simply, a fusion reactor generates energy through the fusion of small elements like hydrogen into helium, releasing massive amounts of energy in the process.  To perform this feat, the hydrogen needs to be in a condition similar to the inner core of a star, with heat in the hundreds of millions in celsius and pressures forcing the fuel’s nuclei to touch. In a star, these conditions happen naturally due to its mass, but to harness the power of fusion for energy, we need to improvise.  So far, there are three leading reactor systems: Internal Confinement with lasers, the Stellarator with many small shaped magnets, and the Tokamak, the most successful model and the current system being manufactured in ITER.  

The Tokamak system is made up of several primary components excluding coolant system, the toroidal electromagnet, several smaller shaped magnets, the plasma containment shell as the reactor chamber, and the heating system.  In practice, the hydrogen isotope fuel is injected into the shell, where it is heated by laser and microwave ovens to the needed temperature. The plasma is circulated through the shell in a ring shaped magnetic field produced by the electromagnets, and once fusion begins to take place, the released heat energy is transferred to heat syncs lining the reactor chamber to heat water into high pressure steam, which is then used to power turbine generators.  

It’s a somewhat common mistake to call fusion power the same thing as Fission power, better known as modern nuclear power, even though the two methods of gathering power from atoms are nearly polar opposites.  In fusion, energy is gathered by smashing atoms together, releasing energy from the combination of heavier nuclei like Hydrogen to Helium, while fission gathers energy from the splitting of heavier atoms like Uranium into smaller ones. The generation is also different, where Fusion uses compressed plasma to heat steam turbines where fission relies on nuclear chain reaction.  

Fusion is also much safer compared to fission, even though it may seem otherwise. When a fusion reactor suffers even light changes of control over the reaction, the heat generation will rapidly dissipate. Fission is still very safe, but when the stars align the damage can be catastrophic, with examples such as Chernobyl’s reactor 4 detonating or Fukushima reactor breach due to an earthquake. Overall, you shouldn’t hold the same fear you may have with nuclear power with fusion for these reasons. 

If we want to fight climate change, one of the first steps will be to replace fossil fuels, and Fusion power, because of its output and near limitless supply of fuel, is one of the best candidates for this task. As the ITER project ever slowly approaches completion with an estimated date of completion and ignition sometime in 2025, we are closer than ever to a clean, safe, and renewable major energy source.