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Race for clean energy heats up; this $22 billion megaproject aims to make fusion a reality

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In recent years, private fusion industry funded by venture capitalists and private investors has boomed. Their teams are achieving new milestones in the development of the first test reactor

Race for clean energy heats up; this $22 billion megaproject aims to make fusion a reality
Scientists have been trying to replicate the power of the sun for years through fusion reaction. Unlike nuclear reactors that are powered by fission or splitting of atoms, fusion occurs when atoms are fused together. This can generate energy that is four times more than that from fission reactors and four million times more than that from coal.
Additionally, fusion is less harmful to the environment as it does not generate long-term radioactive waste, unlike conventional nuclear plants. Fusion reactors also do not meltdown and the fuel that powers the reactor, hydrogen, is abundant and can be cheaply extracted from seawater.
A fusion reaction is, therefore, set to be a game-changer in the energy industry and there are a handful of endeavours striving to be the first to turn it into reality.
Seven-nation ITER project
The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), a $22 billion dollar international fusion research project powered by seven-member nations, hopes to achieve net energy by 2026. The construction of the reactor is about 80 percent complete. However, ITER will not sell energy, but provide a blueprint for future fusion reactor designs.
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The ITER project in southern France was first launched in 1985 by seven-member nations -- China, the European Union, India, Japan, Korea, Russia and the United States. Thousands of engineers and scientists have contributed to the design of the project which now engages 35 countries.
Private investors
Although ITER is the largest fusion reactor ever constructed, it is not the only one. In recent years, the private fusion industry funded by venture capitalists and private investors has boomed.
"Approximately $2 billion has been invested in the fusion space by forward-thinking people like Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk. They are all investing in one form or another of fusion technology,” Laban Coblentz, head of communication, ITER project, told CNBC.
Reaching new milestones
In fusion reactions, magnets are used to control the reactors. This is because the reactors have a roiling ball of plasma made up of charged particles and they can be confined together using magnetic fields. Not any magnet will do this.
Most reactors use a design called a tokamak, which corrals the plasma in a container, which has a large magnet in the middle and many magnetic coils looped around it. Superconducting magnets have been used that need to be chilled to just above absolute zero.
Scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), working with Bill Gates-backed Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS), have tested a magnet that is 12 times more powerful than those used for MRIs and can reach a field strength of 20 tesla, a unit of measurement showing the magnet's strength.
The test is significant as it brings us closer to the development of their first test reactor, SPARC, which the scientists believe will be completed by 2025 and ready for everyday use in the early 2030s.
Challenges ahead
Fusion projects require years of research to explore commercial viability. ITER has already put in 36 years of research to build and operate the experimental device. Commercial plants also require huge capital investment with the ITER already investing $20-to-30 billion on the layout. Another challenge for the project is achieving extremely high temperatures.
"Fusion in a lot of ways is the ultimate clean energy source,” prominent physicist and MIT vice-president Maria Zuber told Daily Mail. “The amount of power that is available is really game-changing," Zuber added.
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