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Fusing Europe's energy research.

Fusion energy is potentially the next big game-changer in green technology, and the European Union is betting big on it with a new five-year, 850 million [euro] program to foster the development of nuclear fusion as a climate-friendly energy source. EUROfusion, under which the EU teams up with major research labs across the continent, replaces the 14-year-old European Fusion Development Agreement (EFDA), as well as 29 bilateral association agreements between the European Commission and research institutions in 27 countries.

Fusion--the process that powers the sun by fusing light atoms at extremely high temperatures--offers almost unlimited potential. Nuclear fusion heats hydrogen atoms to millions of degrees Celsius so that they fuse into an ionized gas or plasma, generating energy in the process. The fuel is practically inexhaustible, and its production process emits no greenhouse gasses. Unlike nuclear fission, which powers today's nuclear reactors, nuclear fusion doesn't produce long-lived radioactive waste and is thus free from many of the concerns that have tarnished the reputation of nuclear energy. Scientists believe it could meet a large portion of the world's energy demand in a highly cost-efficient and environmentally safe way.

Despite its demonstrated potential, however, fusion has been a technology perpetually on the horizon. No fusion reactor has yet to produce more energy than it consumes. Like fission technology, fusion was developed for military use more than 60 years ago, but it has eluded commercial application. Although civilian research, revived in the 1970s, has brought down many of the technical barriers, plenty still exist--among them mastering the highly complex field of plasma physics to maintain the conditions needed for fusion and extract exhaust heat in a way that generates energy. Huge and expensive reactors will be needed to contain the superhot plasma long enough for reactions to start. That's the status today.

The EU is hoping to begin addressing those challenges with EUROfusion's consolidated research program. The move, say its backers, will enable Europe's national laboratories to pool their resources more efficiently, a measure they claim is necessary to meet the challenges of increasingly complex, large-scale projects.

Chief among these complex projects is the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), considered to be one of the world's most complex scientific and engineering projects. Currently under construction in southern France, the 20 billion[euro] ($25 billion) facility will not produce electricity but it will help resolve critical scientific and technical issues to pave the way for industrial applications of fusion technology.

The Joint European Torus (JET) will also play a key role in these efforts. It is currently the world's largest and most powerful tokamak--a magnetic confinement system invented in the Soviet Union in the 1960s and adopted by fusion researchers around the world. The JET facility, in Culham, England, is designed to allow researchers to study fusion in conditions approaching those needed in a power plant. It is currently viewed as the most likely candidate to produce controlled thermonuclear fusion power in the near future. However, it is not capable of producing power at commercial levels. The planned ITER tokamak will burn at 10 times the temperature of the sun's core to produce a significant net gain in energy, with a power output equivalent to that of a medium-sized power plant.

ITER is an international collaboration: China, the European Union, India, Japan, Korea, Russia, and the United States--a set of governments that together represents more than half the world's population--are pooling their financial and scientific resources to build the reactor. The project was born at the Geneva Superpower Summit in 1985, when Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan agreed to launch an international initiative aimed at developing fusion energy for peaceful purposes. A battle over its location finally ended in 2005 with an agreement to build ITER at Cadarache near Aix-en-Provence; under that agreement, Europe became the biggest contributor to the project, shouldering 40 percent of its costs.

As ITER ramps up, scientists are optimistic. "Although there are a lot of uncertainties in fusion plasma physics and it will take some time to optimize conditions in the reactor, the work already done makes me confident there are no show-stoppers to prevent us from producing a few hundred megawatts of fusion power," said David Campbell, who heads ITER's plasma operations, at the EUROfusion kickoff event.

Preparation for the EUROfusion program began in 2012. All of the EU labs involved in fusion research drafted a roadmap to realize the new energy source by 2050. The roadmap has two primary goals: to launch and conduct ITER experiments, and to develop concepts for a fusion demonstration plant, called DEMO.

The roadmap also outlines how the research necessary to achieve each of these objectives will be managed and carried out by universities and research centers under the aegis of the EU's new Horizon 2020 research program. The aim is to overcome the managerial and organizational complications that have accompanied Europe's role in the ITER project and its other fusion research initiatives, and that have been a growing source of friction within the European fusion research community.

The complications are well documented. A recently published study by the consultancy firm Ernst & Young for the budgetary control committee of the European Parliament noted, among other findings, that the organizational structure of the agency managing ITER inherently constrained possibilities for containing costs.

There is also concern about Europe's track record in financing long-term, risky projects. Skeptics point to the region's disastrous Galileo project, the long-delayed satellite radio navigation and positioning program that stumbled over another hurdle in 2007, when the EU withdrew the construction contract after the consortium awarding the contract demanded more money.

It is also unclear whether all ITER partners will continue to collaborate on fusion energy. Energy provision is a political as well as a scientific issue. China has already pushed ahead in fusion energy, developing its own experimental tokamak in the eastern city of Hefei. The country is now planning a more advanced fusion energy test reactor, as well. India, Japan, and South Korea have also expressed interest in establishing their own fusion facilities. The United States already has its own, though funding remains an issue.

Despite the many complications that fusion research has encountered in Europe and the many challenges that lie ahead, EU scientists remain confident. "EUROfusion is an historic event," said Professor Tony Donne, who heads the program. "For the first time, we are bringing together 27 countries to work on a common scientific goal--fusion electricity by 2050."

DOI: 10.5437/08956308X5801001

John Blau, Contributing Editor

Dusseldorf, Germany
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Title Annotation:News and Analysis of the Global Innovation Scene
Comment:Fusing Europe's energy research.(News and Analysis of the Global Innovation Scene)
Author:Blau, John
Publication:Research-Technology Management
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jan 1, 2015
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