Early in March 2020, Fusion for Energy (F4E) – the European Union organisation managing Europe’s contribution to the ITER project – announced the successful production of Europe's first powerful superconducting magnet which will later be installed in the vacuum vessel of the ITER machine to confine the burning plasma.
As the quality of the confinement is a significant factor for the success of a fusion reaction, intensive research has been conducted in order to optimise such magnets, known as toroidal field coils, in the past.
Italian physicist Alessandro Bonito-Oliva has been at the forefront of research and engineering dedicated to magnets for the ITER project for many years. In his role as F4E Programme Manager for Magnets, the 60-year-old has some interesting insights to share about the developments from the very beginning of designing magnets for ITER to the point now where it is nearing its finish.
Karl Tischler, on behalf of Fusion in Europe, had the opportunity to interview Alessandro during the COVID-19 lockdown in Europe. Normally a frequent traveller, Alessandro has been isolating himself in his home in Barcelona since the onset of the crisis in Spain back in March 2020. As Alessandro is also recovering from a knee injury he contracted a while ago, he has been taking things very slow and was happy to spend some time on the phone with Karl to talk about the fascinating journey to the great achievement of the first superconducting magnet Europe contributed to the ITER project.
Fusion in Europe: With ITER, we are really striving to make the impossible happen. We are basically creating a mini sun on earth and trying to harvest energy from it. This sounds like a fantastic idea out of a science fiction novel, even for the engineers and scientists involved in the project! Considering this, it is all the more stunning to see that one major milestone along the way to creating fusion energy on earth has been reached with the delivery of this powerful toroidal field coil for the future reactor. This wouldn't have been possible without the collaboration of numerous experts across the globe – all of which have exciting stories to share. I believe these are as interesting as the scientific facts themselves. Alessandro, you have been a leader in the field for many decades. We would love to hear more about your personal career and what sparked your interest in fusion!
Alessandro Bonito-Oliva: At the start of my career, I was involved in different research projects in Italy, the USA, France and Oxford (UK) and developed a desire to be part of a new culture of energy supply, which at the time already became an important topic due to the growing concerns about nuclear technologies. So in 1995, while I was working in the USA, I was asked to go back to Italy and to take the opportunity to work on the first prototype of a magnetic field coil for the ITER project (it was only four metres tall – now they are 16 metres!). I was fascinated by the complex technology and its potential to bring forward a sustainable energy source with great benefits for humankind. So from then on, I was keen to see the next steps in the process and to play an active part in it. Especially since the Chernobyl disaster, people realised that it wouldn't be sustainable to keep going ahead with conventional nuclear technologies and other conventional forms of energy supply. In 2007 the story repeated itself – I was living and working again in the USA at the time; I was called by the ITER Research Unit (then based in Garching, Germany) and asked if I was interested in moving to Barcelona, Spain to become the Head of the TF coils project for F4E. Even though I had only moved to the US from France six months earlier, I didn't hesitate to say yes – even more so because my wife and my two children liked the idea of living in Barcelona so much that my wife actually threatened to leave me if I dared to turn down the offer! (laughs). So I embraced this inspiring opportunity and started my job in Barcelona in January 2008.
FiE: That sounds impressive. So this is how you started your quest for the most powerful toroidal field coil...
Alessandro: In the beginning, no-one thought it would be possible to build a coil using such a complex technology and with the dimensions of the ITER project. There were just too many technological uncertainties to overcome. And of course we had a limited budget! The problem with this type of project is that it is technically difficult, and you also have to make sure to follow a strategy that allows you to keep costs down.
Just to give you an example of the dimensions we’re talking about: at the time, if you wanted to find a company to help you build ten of these magnetic coils... you would find almost nobody to do it. In fact, there was only one company which would have been able to do it. So they had the monopoly, and contacting them for an offer at a fixed price for something you didn’t even know would be feasible or not would have meant ending up with a huge price. So my solution was to focus on some of the critical technological aspects first, in order to prove which technologies really work, so that we could launch a call for tender with reliable specifications.
The second part was to split the high financial risk that comes with such a range of technology over several “buckets”/lots – which means you could go on contracts with several companies that had the right expertise in a specific field, therefore maximising competition and minimising uncertainties. With this strategy, we were able to stay within our budget. So the bottom line is, in order to succeed, you have to find the correct strategy to get the correct price. I am a physicist with an MBA degree – and I really think you need this combination of strategic business thinking and technological skills.
FiE: So breaking down the huge, yet undefined task of building the coil into several technological components was your key to success.
Alessandro: Another important step was to collaborate closely with industry. They do not have the R&D background, but as I’ve always been working in industry (F4E is my first experience as the customer), I know very well how production works. Research and industry must complement each other. Only together you can achieve something – so consider them partners instead of suppliers! I am not a difficult customer, but see myself as part of the team, and I want to work with them to find the solution. This is one of the key things. You always end up in situations with big crises – you cannot get it right the first time. And imagine, just one coil costs 100 million euros. So you understand the level of the pressure on our industry partners! Every time you have a setback, it costs a lot of money. So building a constructive spirit is a fundamental aspect.
And ITER is not only a huge technological challenge, but also a cultural one: we are collaborating with people and different cultures from around the world for the benefit of mankind. There are not many examples of endeavours like this in the world right now. This is also like an experiment, which is part of the challenge… we can demonstrate together that we are not only able to realise this exceptional machine, but also prove that this political and socio-cultural endeavour works. The importance of having different approaches, attitudes and cultures is also playing a role inside my F4E team. I have the fortune to have an excellent team composed by highly committed engineers, physicists, lawyers and other figures coming from different European countries, with different types of background, different personalities, and this is again an essential added value. This variety brings different competences, different points of view and approaches, which together have been essential in finding solutions which each of us would not have been able to come up with alone. And I am very grateful to all of them: without them, we would not have been able to make any single TF coil!
FiE: It seems that coordinating so many people is much more complex than you would think, considering the soft skills you need...
Alessandro: Oh yes, communication is key! Everyone comes from a different cultural background. Japanese people, for instance, communicate differently. And of course you even see big differences within Europe: an Italian from the south is obviously different than a German. It can be frustrating at first, but when you find a way to communicate, it is really enriching, because everyone brings in a different angle. With such a big challenge to overcome, with such a broad level of cultural variety, you really improve your capability to succeed. If you have a problem, the more different views you can combine together, the better, as you end up with ideas that you would not have had yourself.
FiE: Can you think of an example?
Alessandro: Hmm, let me think. Between October and January I spent a lot of time in China – in fact it was where the Corona virus started – 100 km from Wuhan! There was one issue with a coil. I was working with all these Chinese colleagues, and together we collaborated very well. Chinese tend to be very focussed and normally put in a lot of effort; they are more concentrated on the production, whereas I tend to be more, let’s say, intuitive. I generally don’t follow a specific way of thinking. Maybe you could say I’m more... imaginative. So working together, we could achieve more: they brought the efficiency of their culture and I brought in a visionary point of view. None of us would have been able to solve the problem by ourselves, and together we were able to solve the problem much more quickly – by combining our strengths.
FiE: So you bring different people’s and culture’s strengths together to solve the problem. What else is important to consider?
Alessandro: Everybody has a different way of working. This can cause frustration at first, but in the end it’s the key to success. You must think outside the box, and you must think outside of YOUR box. This applies to science in general. Apart from this, one more important skill is strategic thinking. You start from scratch, which is boring – the first two years are a lot of paperwork, then comes the first tender… but then year after year you see one block on top of another build up, and things start to take shape. Have you seen the movie about the ITER project, Let There Be Light? It gives you a good idea of the size. I am actually in the movie, the one walking inside the magnet.
Having different approaches, attitudes and cultures within my F4E team allows us to find solutions which each of us wouldn't have come up with alone.
FiE: I remember that part in the documentary! Let’s talk about the feelings you had when you first saw the completed magnet.
Alessandro: It was amazing to see this difficult project realised, after ten years of work, actually 15 years if you consider my work on the previous prototype. When I walked in for the first time, I needed five minutes to myself, to breathe, spend time with the coil, which I consider as a “daughter”, and really convince myself that we were finally able to make it happen. But of course the coil is just a component, and before I see it functioning in the machine and making fusion possible, I won’t have “arrived”.
FiE: So for you this was an important step, but what really matters to you is to see fusion happen?
Alessandro: It is a good achievement, but the component just contributes to the whole. I’m responsible for other kinds of magnets too. There are three types of big magnets: first of all, there is the toroidal field coil, which is the one we are talking about today, the D-shaped one, of which we have 18 within the machine. They are placed around the torus and make a kind of chamber. Then there are round coils that are even bigger, six of them. I am responsible for five of them, one is produced in Russia, and one of the ones I was responsible for was built in China – the one I told you about before. And lastly, there is the central solenoid, which is built in the USA.
You need these three magnets working together to be able to control the plasma and to realise the fusion reaction – you create a kind of magnetic cage which is keeping the plasma together, confined. Confinement is very important for the fusion reaction. On the sun, gravity is doing the job. It is so strong that the particles stick together. On earth, it is the magnetic field. It’s also about the density of the plasma. And you need to achieve a very high temperature in order to get the particles to move really fast so they “touch” each other and fuse. So the magnetic effect is just one part. It really is a complex machine. But after all, we recreate what happens in the sun…
FiE: It is hard to believe how complex it is! It amazes me every time someone tells me about it.
Alessandro: Yes, each component is complex, and then you have to make them all work together! This is another big challenge, of course. My part is not finished yet: As I have an industry background, and my experience includes assembling, commissioning and operating magnets, I was asked to help with the assembly of the machine. And I am happy to do this, because I want to see the machine working! This is my goal, vision and mission. It is one thing to say, okay, what I have done in my life is to create a beautiful magnet. But it is a different thing to be able to say that I helped to create a sustainable source of energy that will contribute to saving the planet.
FiE: So this is what your passion is about. Do you have some interesting facts that we could leave with readers and that would change their perspective? For example: how is it possible to build ten magnets in Italy and eight in Japan and end up with the same end result?
Alessandro: First of all, what you need to understand is that they are never completely the same, but they use the same technical specifications and the end product has the same characteristics. The 18 coils for ITER will include six conductors from Europe, the rest comes from Russia, the USA and China. And if components come from four or five different places where the manufacturing process is not exactly the same, you have a certain level of variation, which can be important. Here we are talking about a dimension of around 50 mm diameter plus or minus 1 mm. Some conductors may be able to handle more current than others, but at the end of the day, what is important is that the current is the same for all, so the operational performance will be the same. But we are getting really technical here…
FiE: Maybe a simple comparative example could be to use five different lawn mowers to cut grass, and your specification is to mow the grass 5 cm tall, and as long as they all do that, regardless of how they were built, it is fine.
Alessandro: In the end, the geometry of the coils must be the same so they can be fitted precisely within the tokamak. For the operation of the tokamak, it is the trajectory of the current loop that matters. As long as the key parameters are met, you can allow for a certain variation. We are talking about 16 meter coils with a tolerance of 0.1 mm to 0.2 mm difference! Consider the dimensions!
FiE: Why don’t you just build these incredibly precise, huge magnets on site?
Alessandro: The decision is made by ITER. ITER is made up of different parties, and each of them wants to have a share of the production and the development, as this allows each single party to leverage the technology. This is not rational from the point of view of construction, but it makes sense in that know-how is spread. Knowledge cannot just be learnt from books – it is about mastering all these different aspects that you can only learn by doing them yourself.
FiE: So learning by doing is ITER’s approach. By the way, how many different languages do you speak?
Alessandro: My son and daughter speak five or six languages, but I can only speak Italian, English and a little Spanish. Mostly I use English. I love literature! I am interested in the words! In my spare time I enjoy books, films, music… I do not want to hear about technology or science. If you become too monolithic in your thinking, you miss something. You need a broader perspective. I’m a theoretical physicist, but worked in industry because I didn’t want to spend my time in the classroom, I wanted experience and to build actual things. In my first year, I destroyed so much equipment, made so many errors. At university I just did calculations and gained no experience actually doing things. So I changed how I think, but my theoretical background still helps! I tend to think of the solution before. The approach used in the USA and China is to try first. My approach is – first think and then try. In my experience, thinking before will save you so much time and money! After all, thinking is much faster than trying. And this comes from my background. When I received an offer to do my MBA, of course I accepted! To me this was adding another dimension that I did not have before. And it helps a lot, of course, with the coil… it helps me with my work. Like with ITER, it’s all of these things working together that produces better results.
FiE: Thank you for speaking with me today, Alessandro – it was so wonderful to hear your story and what inspires you. It sounds like you have found something that you really love doing!
Alessandro:Thank you, it was nice also for me!