Somehow, amid all the geopolitical rivalries, tensions, and rising nationalism, nearly three dozen countries—China, India, Japan, South Korea, Switzerland, Russia, the U.S., and all 27 members of the European Union—are joining forces to launch the largest scientific research facility in history.
Known as ITER, the roughly $24 billion megaproject is being built in southern France to demonstrate the scientific and technological feasibility of fusion energy. Current nuclear energy relies on fission, where a heavy chemical element, usually uranium, is split to produce lighter ones, thereby generating energy—but also radioactivity.
Nuclear fusion works the opposite way, combining two light elements to make a heavier one. This process powers stars like our sun and releases vast amounts of energy with very little radioactivity. Since it can work with light and abundant elements like hydrogen, it has the potential to supply humanity with limitless energy for millions of years.
To put it in perspective, through nuclear fusion, a relative handful of hydrogen could produce enough energy to power 2,300 American homes annual (equivalent to about 10,000 tons of coal, the most common fuel in the world and highly polluting). A 2,000 megawatt fusion power plant would supply electricity for two million homes.
Despite 60 year of trying, there has been little progress in making nuclear fusion commercially viable—hopefully until now. By the time ITER is completed in 2025, we may finally come within reachable grasp of this promising energy source. In addition to being the largest research facility, it will also be the largest nuclear fusion experiment and will have the largest system of superconducting magnets.
At the heart of ITER will be Tokamak, a Russian invention that uses a powerful magnetic field to confine a hot plasma to generate fusion. While devised in the 1960s, to this day a Tokamak is the leading candidate for industrial-scale fusion—hence ITER will have one stretching 100 feet and comprised of one million parts.
In announcing the groundbreaking of the project today, France’s President Emmanuel Macron said the effort would unite countries around a common good. “ITER is clearly an act of confidence in the future. The greatest advances in history have always proceeded from daring bets, from journeys fraught with difficulty. At the start it always seems that the obstacles will be greater than the will to create and progress. ITER belongs to this spirit of discovery, of ambition, with the idea that, thanks to science, tomorrow may indeed be better than yesterday.”
Good to see the world still managing to stick together for something this big and consequential. A heartening display of our species’ potential.