It has been said that the nuclear fusion conundrum will be solved within 30 years … but they have been saying that for the last 50 years already. Now, we humbly expect the first feasible fusion power plant prototype to start operations sometime in the 2060s. Producing electricity from fusion is the greatest engineering and scientific challenge of our century. A scientific journey that is greater than achievements such as the building of the Great Pyramids or the Great Wall of China, or landing on the Moon … and this time, humankind depends on it.

A QUEST FOR CLEAN ENERGY

Mark Henderson

Mark Henderson

Our use of fossil fuels has an accelerating countdown timer. Either we completely deplete our available reserves or we damage the environment just enough to prevent human society from continuing as we know it. We have to find alternative sources of clean energy, whatever they may be. As the head of the Electron Cyclotron Section of ITER and advocate of fusion energy, Dr. Mark Henderson, puts it: ”We are addicted to carbon. We have to prove, as a species, that we are collectively intelligent enough to prevent our own extinction.” Fusion looks like a promising answer.

We are addicted to carbon. We have to prove, as a species, that we are collectively intelligent enough to prevent our own extinction.

Dr. Mark Henderson

NOT THERE YET

Fusion power plants will create artificial stars and become the clean energy source that will power our way of life in the future. But we are not quite there yet. At the moment, it takes a lot of energy to confine the plasma and a lot more to heat it up to the temperature required for fusion to occur. At this time, we are building ITER to prove that we will be able to obtain a net gain of energy output from a fusion reaction, sometime in the next 20 years. Then, DEMO, a prototype power plant, will be built in order to transform the excess output fusion energy into usable electricity, based on everything we learn from ITER.

As fusion scientists we have the chance to impact the future of the hundreds or thousands of generations to come.

Dr. Mark Henderson

LONG TERM COMMITMENT

The tokamak pit of ITER some years ago. Pictures: Eyesteelfilm

The tokamak pit of ITER some years ago. Pictures: Eyesteelfilm

Generations of scientists have dedicated their whole careers to fusion research, but there is still a long way to go. The end goal is so far into the future that those who finally make fusion happen may not have even been born yet. The tens of thousands of scientists and individuals working towards fusion today are well aware that they might not be remembered in thirty or forty years, and that is okay. Believing in fusion is looking beyond the importance and the lifetime of our generation. Mark presumes that “as fusion scientists we have the chance to impact the future of the hundreds or thousands of generations to come.”

FUSION IS PART OF OUR FUTURE

Nuclear fusion is the epic scientific quest of our time. “We have to face the fact that fusion is extremely complicated”, warns Mark. “We need to orient the scientific community and the opulation towards it. Otherwise, look at the consequences”. Fusion is one of our best hopes, as a species, to have a sustainable and reliable near-limitless source of clean energy within the 21st century. “I believe we will have multiple clean sources of energy in the future: solar, wind – but fusion will be the basis”, says the ITER expert.

authorbox_Diogo-Eloi-AguiamjpgI am an electronics engineer currently doing a PhD in the Advanced Plasma Science and Engineering programme. I develop microwave reflectometry diagnostics that aid other physicists understanding plasma behavior in nuclear fusion research. I advocate for Open Science and thank EUROfusion for the support in publishing Open Access.

Diogo Elói Aguiam (27) from Portugal is currently based at: Lisbon, Portugal, @diogoaguiam, https://daguiam.github.io, https://www.linkedin.com/in/diogoaguiam/. (Picture: private)