The race for nuclear fusion
The dream of unlimited and clean energy resulting from nuclear fusion had escaped man for half a century. But start-ups, financed by the biggest names in the digital economy, promise it within ten years.
New York, 2050. Hydrogen plasma has just ignited at 150? Million degrees Celsius. Atoms of hydrogen fuse and emit an immense amount of energy. The reactor, which houses the thermonuclear reaction, is the size of a semi-trailer container. Despite its modest dimensions, it feeds close to 150 000 homes. Further, an identical reactor pushes a giant cargo ship of 200 000 tons to the onslaught of the oceans. A few hundred kilometers into the sky, a space shuttle speeds up. Propelled by nuclear fusion, it will join Mars in just a month. Six times faster than traditional probes!
The development, between 2025 and 2050, of a multitude of small nuclear fusion reactors by North American companies is a revolution. By reproducing the reaction that takes place in the heart of the Sun [see opposite], the world can now produce a large quantity of electricity from an almost unlimited fuel, hydrogen, without generating greenhouse gases Or waste. On the other side of the Atlantic, at Cadarache (Bouches-du-Rhone), Iter, with its gigantic tokamak, the installation capable of producing the conditions for obtaining fusion, is at a standstill. This megaproject, financed by seven countries and the European Union, entered service in 2025. He made his first mergers in 2029, offering an unprecedented understanding of plasma physics to the scientific community. But too expensive, too complex, it never became the pre-industrial model expected.
Science fiction? Of course ! But this optimistic scenario fuels the ambitions of a new generation of entrepreneurs. In the 1950 years, the world of physics promised fusion before the year 2000 ... But faced with an immense technological challenge and the competition of major projects (like the Strategic Defense Initiative, the famous Star Wars launched by the President Ronald Reagan in 1983, which monopolized a lot of brains), the fusion seemed to have fallen into oblivion in history.
The challenge of the new economy
Today, it is reborn from its ashes, under the impulse of start-ups, in the United States and Canada, which build in their garages the prototypes of future fusion reactors. Their names: General Fusion [read page 34], Helion Energy, Tri Alpha Energy. Illustrious unknowns. Yet, with a few dozen employees, budgets of less than 100? Million dollars and small machinery, these start-ups claim to be able to overtake the Iter reactor, under construction in Cadarache, with its 23 000 tons and its budget 15? Billion euros [read page 38]. Better! Where Iter announces first experiments for 2025-2030, they plan to deliver functional and commercial reactors from 2025! Fol hope for some, arrogance for others ... Except that last September, the Californian company Tri Alpha bluffed the whole world. It had just confined a plasma of 10? Million degrees Celsius for five milliseconds in a reactor using a reversed magnetic field, a completely different technology from that of Iter. A modest performance, but which until now seemed only within the reach of major research groups.
Tri Alpha wants to implement a complex fusion without the production of neutrons, which eventually damage the reactors. This fusion requires temperatures of the order of 300-million degrees Celsius, double the traditional fusion. "This fusion reaction is ideal, but inaccessible today. The idea is encouraging, but we are still a long way off, "says Frank Carré, scientific director of the Nuclear Energy Directorate of the French Atomic Energy Commission (CEA). "Ten million degrees for five milliseconds is fine ... but the tokamaks were already doing it in the 1970 years," said Tony Donné, program manager at Eurofusion, a European fusion research organization.
Is the goal of Tri Alpha and her sisters too high for them? Part of the scientific community would be tempted to think so. But some of the biggest bosses in the new economy are betting on these start-ups. Peter Thiel, the co-founder of PayPal, who does not hesitate to denounce the frivolity of digital innovation, has invested more than $ 10 million through its Mithril Capital Management fund in Helion Energy, Washington State. Paul Allen, Microsoft co-founder and creator of the Vulcan Capital fund, is funding Tri Alpha's research to the tune of 40? Million. Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon, has mobilized its Bezos Expeditions fund to donate more than $ 20 million to General Fusion. Bill Gates, himself, who launched the Green Energy Mission Innovation program at COP 21, is closely involved in the merger. He recently visited the Italian national agency for new technologies (Enea).
What is the purpose of these digital giants? "We note an increase in private sector interest in the merger. These investments stimulate global research, says Richard Kamendje, a fusion and plasma physicist at the International Energy Agency (IAEA). Research in fusion is very interesting because it can create technological breakthroughs in superconductors or 3 D printing, which will be applicable in other fields such as medicine. "Bernard Blanc, the director of nuclear development at Assystem, wants to believe that these billionaires are primarily addressing the issue of energy and climate protection, for which" fusion is a real answer ". Even if it is also the opportunity to "develop new technologies in other fields as was the case with the space program. The merger serves as a technology incubator ".
Alongside these start-ups, three industry and research monsters embarked on the merger adventure. Lockheed Martin, the world's largest arms dealer, promised a nuclear fusion reactor in five years. "If they have identified a technological break, why do not they publish it? Bernard Saoutic, an engineer at the CEA's Institute for Research on Fusion by Magnetic Containment (IRFM), warns. In addition to the ultra-short development time, the US multinational ensures that its reactor, small enough to be moved on a truck, will serve to power cities, propel aircraft and shuttles. Despite the criticism, it maintains the deadline at 2020. "It's full science fiction! "Said Tony Donné of Eurofusion. The Max-Planck Institute of Plasma Physics in Greifswald (Germany) seems more credible. He inaugurated the Wendelstein 7-X (W7X), an experimental reactor that cost 1,1? Billion. In December, 2015, he confined a plasma of one million degrees for one hundredth of a second. The W7X is a stellarator, a competing model of the tokamak used for Iter, which is characterized by an extremely complex positioning of the coils to create the magnetic field. "It offers a technological alternative not to be forgotten," warns Franck Carré, CEA.
Overseas, the powerful Massachusetts institute of technology (MIT) entered the race in August 2015. It announces the development of the ARC (affordable, robust, compact) reactor within ten years. By using new superconducting materials called Rebco (rare earth barium copper oxide), just out of the laboratories, the research center ensures that its reactor will be more powerful than Iter, the gigantism less. On the European side, we are seduced by the concept, but we relativise by ensuring that it will take at least thirty years on these superconductors to use them in industrial environment.
Can these actors relegate Iter to the background? "What is certain is that the emergence of reactor projects at 100? Million dollars disrupts Iter's image and his billions of dollars! "Notes Tony Donné. "As it stands, Iter remains the most advanced demonstration. This is the only machine that will demonstrate a fusion reaction, where other prototypes only demonstrate confinement, "says Franck Carré of the CEA. Even Stephen Dean, one of the founders of the American merger program in the 1960 years, now president of Fusion power associates, does not bury Iter. He is pleased to see the merger re-emerge massively in the United States, but states that "all these projects are in light years of Iter, the only reactor that is only one step away from producing electricity" .
A clean energy source
Whether Iter is the first to realize the merger or not, everyone agrees that it is the construction of this reactor, long considered impossible, that relaunched the work on fusion. For Tony Donné, "the realization of the imminence of climate change is favorable to investment in the merger". The game is worth the effort: 10 grams of deuterium and 15 grams of tritium, two isotopes of hydrogen, are enough to power an inhabitant of a developed country throughout his life! Deuterium reserves in the ocean are millions of years old. As for tritium, it is formed in the reactor from lithium. A reactor of 1 000 megawatts (the equivalent of a French nuclear power plant) would emit for 250 kilograms of helium waste per year, an inert gas. In the event of an incident, the plasma would disperse in a few seconds and the reactor would stop, without further consequence.
However, the merger is, according to its supporters, in a varied energy mix. "In 2100, it should have found its place in the world electricity production," predicted Bernard Blanc of Assystem. Others even mention 2060. "The distribution of the merger will depend on the goodwill of the communities. With fusion, we solve a major problem of humanity: energy, "says Richard Kamendje of the IAEA. A promise made to the world for more than sixty years. What if this time was the right one?
The five large competing projects
Iter: the best known(And the most expensive! )
Investors: European Union, Switzerland, Russia, India, South Korea, United States, Japan, China
The international experimental thermonuclear reactor (ITER), under construction in Cadarache (Bouches-du-Rhône), is the largest fusion project in the world, with a budget of 15 billion. It will not produce electricity, but will better understand the plasmas to give birth to a pre-industrial 2050 reactor.
General Fusion: the simplest
First reactor: 2025
Investors: Bezos Expeditions, Cenovus, sovereign fund of Malaysia ...
Located in Canada, near Vancouver, the General Fusion start-up has taken over a fusion model tested in the 1970 years. It is a matter of maintaining the plasma by magnetic confinement, such as Iter, and by inertial confinement such as the Laser Mégajoule, at Barp (Gironde). But because lasers are expensive, General Fusion replaces them with steam pistons, a more robust and economical solution.
Lockheed Martin: the most mysterious
Commercial Reactor: 2020
Investor: Lockheed Martin *
When the big conglomerate of American defense and aerospace decided to invest in nuclear fusion, it surprised everyone. Especially since Lockheed Martin claims to be able to market a reactor in less than five years. Beyond the supply of energy, the multinational ensures that its reactor will be used for marine, aerial and space propulsion.
MIT: Most credible
Investor: United States Department of Energy
The famous Massachusetts institute of technology (MIT) also has its proposed merger: the ARC reactor. It is very similar to Iter, with the difference that it uses new generation superconducting materials. They would create a smaller and more powerful reactor. However, these new materials are just coming out of the laboratories. They will have to be tested in an industrial environment.
Tri Alpha: the most sensational
No specific dates
Investors: Goldman Sachs, Vulcan Capital, Venrock ...
The American company Tri Alpha made a fine 2015 sensation by maintaining a plasma of 10 million degrees Celsius for five milliseconds. A feat that was thought to be reserved for large research institutes and not for a small start-up. Tri Alpha wants to go further than others by creating a fusion without neutron production, which damages the machines.
* The fact that the world defense leader is so interested in fusion is very emblematic of what the world should be once the merger has been mastered:The total war against the environment.