EPFL Fusion Day

© 2013 EPFL

© 2013 EPFL

As a major contributor to the field of fusion research, the EPFL held a conference to discuss the progress that is being made in the field across the world, the roadmaps to the electricity production from fusion and to introduce ITER, the world’s largest nuclear fusion reactor.

Fusion is the process by which two hydrogen isotopes can combine ('fuse') to make a helium atom, thus releasing enormous amounts of energy. It is what powers the Sun, which fuses 620 million tons of hydrogen every second, enabling life-sustaining conditions on Earth. As a source of man-made energy, fusion has the potential to satisfy the world’s increasing global demands in a sustainable and environmentally safe manner. Through its Center for Plasma Physics Research (CRPP), EPFL has made significant contributions to fusion research and is now a key member of the international fusion energy community. As a result, on May 17, EPFL held “Fusion Day”, a conference featuring international speakers who reported on the progress of fusion research across the world and discussed its implications for the future of global energy.

The meeting opened with an introduction from Professor Philippe Gillet, EPFL Vice-President for Academic Affairs, who emphasized the importance of fusion as a safer means of energy production compared to nuclear fission. Following the 2011 Fukushima nuclear reactor disaster, Switzerland has confirmed its commitment to fusion research while gradually stepping out from nuclear fission. In the short term, fusion can also contribute to the challenge of having to continue training nuclear engineers to run and safely terminate nuclear fission facilities.

Professor Jiangang Li, Director of the Academia Sinica Institute for Plasma Physics

Professor Li overviewed the progress of fusion activities in China, which considers this to be the best approach for the future of energy. Research in magnetic confinement fusion is flourishing in the country, as there has been a formidable increase in governmental investment in recent years. This is reflected in over ten university programs for fusion physics and three theoretical centers with activities worth $40-60 million each year. In addition, China features a number of tokamaks for fusion research, including the EAST (Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak) in Hefei, which is crucial in advancing knowledge on steady-state plasma physics, which have great implications for devices utilizing high-frequency technology. China’s future in fusion includes its participation in the ITER project, the construction of the Chinese Fusion Engineering Testing Reactor (CFETR), and its exploitation up to the production of 200 MW of fusion power in the mid-2030.

Professor James W. Van Dam, Director, Research Division, Fusion Energy Sciences, US Department of Energy

Reflecting on the progress in the past 50 years, Dr Van Dam described the impact hydrogen fusion could have for global energy in the future. Conceivably, fusion can provide energy for thousands of years. It is 14 million times more efficient than coal, 7 million times more efficient than oil and 4 times more efficient than nuclear fission. With plentiful fuel available, fusion can offer large-scale energy generation without carbon or acid rain-producing emissions, persistent radioactive waste or danger of catastrophic meltdowns. Such advantages greatly outweigh the need for large-scale power-plants and current high expenses associated with fusion research. The US holds fusion in high regard, with numerous fusion facilities and its international partnership with the ITER project and activities such as the National Spherical Torus Experiment at Princeton University, which aims to improve plasma configurations for use in fusion reactors. In addition, the US Department of Energy is currently making progress in plasma science with a view to everyday applications.

Dr Francesco Romanelli, European Fusion Development Agreement (EFDA) Leader and EFDA Associate Leader for Joint European Torus (JET)

Dr Romanelli described the future energy challenge for Europe in terms of achieving sustainability, secure supply and economic competitiveness, all of which are key considerations when deciding upon energy strategies. Fusion can be an unlimited and diffuse energy source that is intrinsically safe and environmentally responsible. The JET project has been successful in achieving hot plasma confinement and generating fusion power already in the 90' although not with a favorable balance. The way ahead is to construct and exploit ITER, in order to verify that the feasibility of fusion power and then to construct DEMO, a reactor providing hundreds of MW of electric power from fusion. Dr Romanelli delineated Europe’s fusion roadmap. Although this is a ‘living document’ that will change in response to the progress of scientific breakthroughs, technological innovations and budgetary developments, its focus is and will be all along to provide fusion electricity on the grid by 2050.

Dr Henrik Bindslev, Director General, European Joint Undertaking, Fusion for Energy (F4E)

Closing the talks, Dr Bindlev gave an overview of the ITER project in the French Cadarache facility. The ITER tokamak will be the largest in the world, enabling unprecedented plasma fusion research. It is intended to produce 10 times the energy it takes to run (500 MW output for every 50 MW input), but it will mainly focus on a fusion science agenda. Dr Bindlev characterized ITER’s mission as setting the ‘standards and norms’ in the field of fusion and furthering its agenda by strengthening the industrial competitiveness of fusion technologies. However, he commented that ITER faces challenges ahead, especially in better understanding the behavior of hot plasma and in the selection and/or development of suitable materials that can sustain large heat loads.

The Fusion Day session ended with questions from the audience, mostly pertaining to the economics and environmental impact of current fusion activities.