In nuclear fusion, competition is hotting up.
The race is on to recreate conditions in the centre of the sun where hydrogen is not a gas but a plasma, a high-energy state in which all the electrons are stripped from atoms and move freely about.
The sun’s mass and gravitational force squeezes hydrogen atoms together to bring about fusion and the massive release of energy that enables our planet to live. Fusion experiments are aiming to recreate this effect by using powerful magnetic fields to manipulate the plasma, with the aim of harnessing clean, practically limitless power.
Germany’s leading fusion research institute has just produced its first hydrogen plasma and heated it up to six million degrees Celsius. But they were trumped a few days later by researchers in China, who said they had achieved 49.99 million degrees Celsius – three times hotter than the core of the sun – and sustained that temperature for 102 seconds.
Even so, most observers reckon we are still decades away from being able to get more energy out of the reaction than we put in.
Collaboration, as well as competition, is crucial in the world of fusion. China and Germany are both members of the multinational ITER project in France, which is currently constructing an experimental reactor designed to produce 500 megawatts of fusion output. As the project moves into the construction and engineering build phase, close collaboration and partnership between ITER, national fusion laboratories and industry is vital.
Amec Foster Wheeler has played an important part in the ITER project for over 20 years, including a crucial role in creating materials capable of withstanding the temperatures inside the vacuum vessel that houses the fusion reaction. Our experts have also introduced innovations into the test blanket modules, which produce tritium to fuel the reaction.
We are currently leading an alliance of companies that are designing, developing and installing robotic systems for the neutral beam used to heat up the plasma. These complex machines, each the size of a bus, must be maintained, repaired and replaced completely remotely.
These projects demonstrate our leading expertise in developing future nuclear technologies. Our long-term vision is to develop a fusion energy business that designs, builds, operates and eventually decommissions commercial nuclear fusion reactors. Our current priority is to bring Amec Foster Wheeler’s global capability to support delivery of the ITER machine, the world’s biggest energy experiment.