SAINT-PAUL-LES-DURANCE, France (AP) – Teams of scientists on two continents have reached similar milestones in their efforts to achieve a source of energy that will be crucial to the fight against climate change: They have created truly impressive magnets.
On Thursday, scientists at the Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) in southern France received the first component of a magnet so powerful that according to its US manufacturer it is capable of lifting an aircraft carrier.
Standing almost 20 meters (60 feet) tall and four meters (14 feet) in diameter when assembled, the magnet is a crucial component in 35 nations’ attempt to master nuclear fusion.
Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) announced that they too reached a milestone by successfully testing the world’s most powerful high-temperature superconducting magnet that would allow them to beat ITER in the race. to make a “sun on Earth”.
Unlike existing fission reactors that produce radioactive waste and sometimes suffer catastrophic meltdowns, promoters of the new technology say it offers a virtually limitless source of clean energy. But for this it is necessary to know how to take advantage of it, a problem that they have been trying to solve for almost a century.
Rather than splitting atoms, fusion mimics a natural process in stars that joins two hydrogen atoms to produce one helium and with it a large amount of energy.
Fusion requires heat and pressure to unimaginable degrees. One way to do this is to transform hydrogen into electrically charged gas, called plasma, which is then controlled in a donut-shaped vacuum chamber.
This is done with the help of powerful superconducting magnets such as the “central solenoid” that General Atomics began transporting from San Diego, California, to France a few months ago.
Scientists say ITER is 75% complete. His intention is to ignite the reactor in early 2026 with the ultimate goal of producing more energy than is required to heat the plasma and demonstrating that fusion technology is viable.
Among those hoping to beat them is the team in Massachusetts, which claims to have created a magnetic field twice that of ITER with a magnet 40 times smaller.
Scientists at MIT and Commonwealth Fusion Systems say their artifact would be ready for everyday use by the beginning of the next decade.
“We designed this for commercial use,” said MIT Vice Chancellor Maria Zuber, a prominent physicist. “We did not design it to do a scientific experiment.”
Although not designed to produce electricity, ITER would serve as a model for similar, albeit more sophisticated, reactors if it succeeds.
According to the promoters of the project, even if it fails, the participating countries will master technical skills applicable to other fields, from particle physics to the design of materials capable of withstanding the heat of the sun.