Prof Steven Cowley, chief executive of the UK Atomic Energy Authority, believes the world’s first nuclear fusion power plant in France could be producing viable electricity in the 2020s. The Joint European Torus (JET), a European pilot project at Culham in Oxfordshire, which is run by Prof Cowley.
Prof Cowley’s laboratory in Oxfordshire has had a number of firsts and remains the only place which can produce fusion energy on a regular basis.
In 1991 it instigated the world’s first controlled release of fusion energy, and in 1997 it produced a world-record 16 megawatts of fusion power, albeit for just two seconds. It took 24 megawatts of power to produce 16 megawatts. So net energy gain has not been demonstrated by Tokomaks and will not be until the early 2020s at the earliest.
The European Union has set the 2040s as a target goal to produce electricity based on fusion power, but Prof Cowley believes it can be done quicker than that.
He explained: “I hope that with ITER that in the 2020s we will be able to demonstrate a full-blown sustained fusion burn, with lots of energy coming out. It will ignite worldwide support and push through to deliver electricity at that point.
Crowley is suggesting that the first commercial continuous power generation prototype for nuclear fusion tokomaks could be produced by the end of the 2020s instead of 25-30 years after net energy gain is demonstrated for a few minutes by ITER. This assumes ITER hits its 2023-2028 schedule for net gain power demonstration.
Diagram of ITER. Notice the person for scale. DEMO continuous fusion reactor would be 15% bigger.
Prof Cowley believes that, if harnessed properly, nuclear fusion can provide half of all mankind’s energy needs by the middle of the century.
This would mean producing a few thousand copies commercial scale nuclear fusion reactors within about 20 years after the first commercial unit is demonstrated. This would mean scaling up new supply chains for magnets and superconducting wire. This would mean producing probably 5000-6000 ton vacuum chambers that are about 12-15 stories tall. This would be having about 500 being built at the same time and expecting commercial construction in about 4 years even though ITER will take about ten years to build.
The ITER fusion reactor itself has been designed to produce 500 megawatts of output power for 50 megawatts of input power, or ten times the amount of energy put in. The machine is expected to demonstrate the principle of producing more energy from the fusion process than is used to initiate it, something that has not yet been achieved with previous fusion reactors. Construction of the facility began in 2007, and the first plasma is expected to be produced in 2020. When ITER becomes operational, it will become the largest magnetic confinement plasma physics experiment in use, surpassing the Joint European Torus. The first commercial demonstration fusion power plant, named DEMO, is proposed to follow on from the ITER project to bring fusion energy to the commercial market
2010 Tokamak complex excavation start.
2013 Tokamak complex construction start.
2015 Predicted: Tokamak assembly start.
2019 Predicted: Tokamak assembly completion, start torus pumpdown.
2020 Predicted: Achievement of first plasma.
2027 Predicted: Start of deuterium-tritium operation
DEMO (DEMOnstration Power Plant) is a proposed nuclear fusion power plant that is intended to build upon the expected success of the ITER experimental nuclear fusion reactor. The objectives of DEMO are usually understood to lie somewhere between those of ITER and a “first of a kind” commercial station. While there is no clear international consensus on exact parameters or scope, the following parameters are often used as a baseline for design studies: Whereas ITER’s goal is to produce 500 megawatts of fusion power for at least 500 seconds, the goal of DEMO will be to produce at least four times that much fusion power on a continual basis. Moreover, while ITER’s goal is to produce 10 times as much power as is required for breakeven, DEMO’s goal is to produce 25 times as much power. DEMO’s 2 to 4 gigawatts of thermal output will be on the scale of a modern electric power plant. Also notably, DEMO is intended to be the first fusion reactor to generate electrical power. Earlier experiments, such as ITER, merely dissipate the thermal power they produce into the atmosphere as steam.
To achieve its goals, DEMO must have linear dimensions about 15% larger than ITER and a plasma density about 30% greater than ITER. As a prototype commercial fusion reactor DEMO could make fusion energy available by 2033.
PROTO is a beyond DEMO experiment, part of European Commission long-term strategy for research of fusion energy. PROTO would act as a prototype power station, taking in any remaining technology refinements, and demonstrating electricity generation on a commercial basis. It is only expected after DEMO, meaning a post-2050 timeline, and may or may not be a second part of DEMO/PROTO experiment. This might possibly make PROTO the first commercial nuclear fusion power plant in the world.
The ITER cryostat will be the world’s largest high-vacuum pressure chamber ever built. On 17 August, the contract for the manufacturing of the 3,800 ton steel-structure was signed with the Indian company Larsen and Toubro Ltd.
The cryostat forms the vacuum-tight container surrounding the ITER vacuum vessel and the superconducting magnets and acts essentially as a very large refrigerator. It will be made of stainless steel with thicknesses ranging from 50 mm to 250 mm. The structure will have to withstand a vacuum pressure of 1 x 10^-4 Pa; the pump volume is designed for 8,500 m3. Its overall dimensions will be 29.4 meters in diameter and 29 meters in height. The heavyweight will weigh in at more than 3,800 tons, making it the largest vacuum vessel ever built out of stainless steel.
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