Rajya Sabha TV programs like ‘The Big Picture’, ‘In Depth’ and ‘India’s World’ are informative programs that are important for UPSC preparation. In this article, you can read about the discussions held in the ‘In Depth’ episode on “Project Miniature Sun” for the IAS exam.
Anchor: Teena Jha
- The world is currently witnessing a rapid growth in population, economy and urbanisation. World population is expected to reach 900 Cr. By 2040.
- This will lead to an increase in electricity demand by 45% by 2040 and will be two times overall energy demand.
- There is also a growing demand for the transition from fossil fuels to clean energy.
- In this context, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) aims to replicate the reactions inside the sun to harness clean energy.
International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER):
- Nick named as ‘miniature sun’, ITER is the largest plasma based fusion reactor ever built.
- It is the costliest technological project of the 21st century with an estimated construction cost of $25 Billion.
- The project site is located in Cadarache, Southern France.
- The term ‘Thermonuclear’ indicates the nuclear fusion reaction.
- ITER will be two times the size of the largest fusion reactor present and the chamber volume will be 10 times the present one.
Timeline of ITER Project:
- 1988: The Project was
- 2005: India joined the project as one of the 7 major partners.
- 2013: Construction of the ITER Tokamak Complex was started.
- 2019: 66% of the construction has been completed.
- 2025: Commissioning and initiation of plasma experiments is expected.
International Collaboration in the Project:
- ITER is a collaborative project of thousands of scientists and engineers from 35 countries.
- There are seven major partners; India, U.S.A, E.U, Russia, China, Japan, and South Korea.
- These 7 partners constitute about 50% of world population and about 85% of world GDP.
- U alone will bear 45% of the estimated construction cost of $25 Billion while the other 6 countries will contribute 9% each.
- Further, specific tasks and components are assigned to each country.
India’s Contributions to ITER:
- 17500 Cr. has already been committed by India, amounting to almost 10% of the overall cost of construction, operation and decommissioning.
- India has also provided a Cryostat, the world’s largest refrigerator, weighing around 3800 tons and made with stainless steel.
- It will cover the entire structure and keep the magnetic components at a very low temperature (less than -200OC) for maintaining the superconductivity of magnets.
- It was built by L&T Ltd. in Gujarat.
- India is also assigned with the development of critical components such as:
- Cooling water
- Vessel in-wall shielding blocks.
- Radio frequency heating source.
- Diagnostic neutral beam system, etc.
- The Institute of Plasma Research (IPR) at Ahmedabad will oversee the technological commitments of India.
- Around 100 Indian scientists are also involved in the project.
- Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently visited the project site and also held discussions with French President Emmanuel Macron.
Sun as a Source of Energy:
- The Sun is the primary source of energy for the earth and also sustains life on the planet, since it is located at a habitable distance from the sun.
- Human civilizations have considered the sun as a deity and attempted to harness the heat and light energy released by the sun.
- ITER attempts to generate solar energy ‘without using sun’ by replicating the nuclear fusion reaction taking place in the sun.
Mechanism of Nuclear Fusion in the Sun:
- The sun is composed of Hydrogen (75%), Helium (25%) and smaller amounts of Oxygen, Iron, Neon, Nitrogen, Silicon, etc.
- The sun is a massive nuclear fusion reactor like all the other stars.
- The reaction began when a nebula (a cloud of gas and particles) collapsed under its own gravitational force forming a big ball of hot plasma, the sun.
- The core of the sun is the hottest and has high pressure which makes the Hydrogen atoms collected at the centre to fuse together to form Helium atoms and release solar energy.
- Two Hydrogen atoms fuse to form one Helium
Technical Details of ITER:
- Tokamak reactor is a term used for the location where the nuclear fusion takes place.
- The terminology is similar to the term ‘boiler’ used in steam power plants, wherein the core reaction takes place.
- It is a magnetic fusion device to harness fusion energy by mimicking the sun and other stars.
- In the sun, the massive gravitational force creates the conditions for fusion.
- On earth, it is much harder to achieve:
- Fuel must be heated to around 15 million OC.
- Fuel need to be dense enough and maintained at higher temperature and pressure for fusion to take place.
- Initially, the Tokamak cylinder is made completely vacuum.
Nuclear Fusion inside ITER:
- Inside the Tokamak reactor, 2 atoms of Deuterium fuses, at 150 million OC and intense pressure, to form one atom of Helium and release huge amount of energy.
- Deuterium is a heavier isotope of Hydrogen with one each of proton and neutron.
- Pulses of LASER is used to heat the Hydrogen atoms to a plasma state.
- The plasma content is suspended in space by using a huge magnetic field.
- Ignition or self-sustaining reaction is achieved when enough heat is produced from fusion.
- The energy released will be absorbed by the walls as heat which will be used to boil water as in a conventional power plant.
- Electricity will be generated with the use of a steam turbine and a generator.
- Tritium (another isotope of Hydrogen) breeding, which is crucial for next stage fusion reactors, will also be tested in the ITER.
Energy Output from ITER:
- The energy output will be directly proportional to the number of fusion reactions taking place.
- Net energy yield will be around 4 times that of a nuclear fission reactor.
- It will generate 500MW energy which could supply power to 5 Lakh homes.
- It requires 50MW of input energy in the form of heating, 8minutes at a time. Hence output energy is 10 times the input energy.
Theory behind Energy Generation in ITER:
- A thermonuclear reactor or a nuclear fusion power plant converts the fusion energy into electricity.
- In a nuclear fusion reaction, multiple smaller atoms react to form a single and more massive atom.
- However, the mass of the resultant atom will be slightly lesser than the sum of the individual masses of the reactant smaller atoms.
- The differential mass will be converted into energy according to the equation given by Albert Einstein: E = mc2
- E represents energy.
- m represents mass and
- c represents the speed of light.
Other Fusion Reactors across the World:
- In the 1960s, erstwhile USSR developed the first Tokamak reactor which was eventually accepted globally as the most promising configuration for magnetic fusion reactors.
- JET Tokamak developed by the U, in 1997, holds the world record for power generation (16 MW).
- In 2018, China built a fusion reactor which was able to achieve a temperature of 100 million OC for the first time. It was seven times hotter than the sun’s core.
- Earlier, the MAS (Mega Amp Spherical) Tokamak built by K had achieved 15 million OC. They are also planning to design smaller fusion reactors.
- The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the USA is developing SPARC, a doughnut shaped magnetic fusion reactor, in collaboration with Commonwealth Fusion Systems.
- It is funded by the Breakthrough Energy Venture started by Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Michael Bloomberg, etc.
- By 2025, they plan to develop smaller reactors which can be produced in factories, transported and assembled on site.
- In 2018, the Government of Canada has invested $ 37.5 million for developing Magnetized Target Fusion by General Fusion, a start-up founded in 2002. Their plan is to commercialize it within five years.
Environmental Significance of the Project:
- Fossil fuel sources are limited and will not satisfy the growing energy demands.
- Solar energy is an unlimited source of clean energy.
- However, renewable energy sources like wind, hydroelectricity and solar has some limitations as well.
- Sustainable development requires energy sources which are clean, pollution free, emission free, safe, globally available and economically viable.
- Nuclear energy is a clean source of energy since it has very little carbon emissions and ultimately it will reduce the effects of pollution.
- Nuclear fusion can be harnessed as a sustainable long term energy solution.
- Further, the ITER project is designed with negligible impact on the environment.
Benefits from the Project:
- Results of the experiments and Intellectual Property Rights generated during it will be shared with all the partner countries.
- In the future, individual countries may use the technology for carrying out a transition from fossil fuels into clean energy sources.
- The designing and construction of components will provide technological experience to scientists, engineers, research institutes and construction firms.
- Such experience will prove useful for expanding nuclear fusion power projects in future, harnessing energy from Hydrogen.
- Containing the plasma inside a vessel is impractical since it will melt down the vessel itself.
- Hence, magnetic field is used to keep the plasma suspended in space.
- Although technological breakthroughs are making huge strides, perfecting a magnetic field is a difficult task.
- Managing a massive temperature gradient within the reactor also is a challenging task.
- There are safety concerns related to likelihood of reactor melted down, health related risks, radioactive waste disposal, heat tolerance of exhaust systems, etc.
- Systems for the storage and breeding of fuel, recovery of energy, robotic maintenance, etc. need to be fool proof.
- Huge capital investment and economic competitiveness of the output energy are also crucial bottlenecks.
- An ‘experimental’ reactor may not be sufficient to identify the risks associated with a ‘commercial’
- Recreating the reactions inside a sun on earth was once unthinkable. However, ITER attempts to realise it, as a way forward for providing an unlimited supply of green and safe energy.
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