The ITER project, which aims to demonstrate the commercial feasibility of fusion as a long-term energy source, has stated in a press release that all milestones set by the ITER Council have been met, making 2017 ‘a very significant year’.

ITER is a multinational project comprising of seven partners: China, EU, India, Japan, Korea, Russia, and the USA, a total of 35 countries. The project is set up so that each country makes about 90% of its contribution in the form of components that will be fitted together in the final machine. In this way, ITER also serves the goal of sharing collective expertise and raising the industrial and scientific capability of all participating partners.

gasworld spoke to Coblentz Laban, ITER Head of Communication, to gain an in-depth insight and update on the projects progress and to see what part the industrial gas industry has been playing.

Could you clarify the projects aims?

Fusion is clean (no carbon emissions, no long-lived, high activity radioactive waste), abundant (baseload electricity, with millions of years of fuel supply), and safe (no possibility of a meltdown) – making it unique among potential future energy sources. The principles of magnetic confinement have been established for decades in many Tokamaks around the world; but to demonstrate a self-heating or ‘burning’ plasma requires building at full scale. ITER will produce a thermal output of 500 Megawatts (MW) based on 50MW of input heating power.

In simple terms, can you explain fusion energy and the technology involved?

Fusion is the most common source of energy in the universe, the power that fuels the sun and all the stars. As with fission, fusion applies Einstein’s famous equation (E=mc2), converting a small amount of mass to a huge amount of energy. But unlike fission, which takes a heavy element like uranium and splits the atom to produce energy, fusion takes a very light element like hydrogen (H2) and collides two particles at high speeds. The particles that collide are two forms of H2, deuterium and tritium. When they collide, they form helium (He) (a simple non-radioactive by-product) and a very energetic neutron. The energy of the neutrons from fusion is what is used to produce heat to make steam, power a turbine, and produce electricity.

Our Sun fuses about 600 tonnes of H2 per second to produce the energy that sustains life on earth. The Sun does this by confining the H2 plasma at its core, using gravitation. But to reproduce this process on Earth, we cannot use gravitation. Instead we use an extremely powerful magnetic field.

The ITER Tokamak is a donut-shaped vessel surrounded by superconducting magnets. The magnets, which must be supercooled with He, produce a tightly woven three-dimensional magnetic ‘cage’ inside the vessel. When a few grams of H2 plasma are circulated in this magnetic cage, in a vacuum and at extremely high temperatures, the conditions for fusion are set.

At sub-particulate levels, heat is of course reflected in the velocity of the particles. For the H2 particles to achieve the speeds needed to collide and fuse, the ITER plasma will need to be heated to about 150 million °C – ten times hotter than the core of the sun!

Behind the lit offices of the ITER Headquarters building, with desks for 800 people, the scientific installation is rising.

Behind the lit offices of the ITER Headquarters building, with desks for 800 people, the scientific installation is rising.

What industrial gases will be required for the fusion to work?

For an ITER sized facility, the H2 plasma at the core (deuterium and tritium) will only be about 2-3 grams at any one point. The quantities are extremely small. The deuterium will be extracted from seawater. The initial tritium for ITER will be purchased, but over the long-term tritium is bred within the tokamak, from lithium.

The primary industrial gas ITER will need to purchase is He. In the ITER cryoplant, liquid He will circulate at supercooled temperatures (about minus 269 °C) inside the superconductor magnets. Huge volumes (approximately 25 tonnes) of liquid He will be circulated throughout a complex, five-kilometre-long network of pipes, pumps and valves to keep the 10,000-tonne magnet system at this superconducting temperature. He will also be required to provide cooling power to the thermal shields, which reduce the large temperature gradient between the superconducting magnets and the tokamak environment, and the cryopumps that use extreme cold to achieve high vacuum in the plasma chamber. The cryoplant – three coupled units that will provide cooling fluids to the whole installation – will be the largest in the world, with about 75MW of combined cooling power.

Liquid He will be delivered to ITER in 40-cubic-metre containers. Advanced insulation technology will be needed to maintain the -269 °C temperatures throughout the journey from the production site to the ITER cryoplant. About seven container loads will be needed to fill the entire He cooling circuit of the ITER installation. We will use extensive recycling efforts to minimise He losses, but we anticipate needing about one additional 40-cubic-metre container per year due to losses.

The other gas that will be used in large quantities at ITER is nitrogen (N2). We will extract the N2 directly from the atmosphere in an on-site gaseous N2 generator with a production capacity of 50 tonnes per day. The N2 will then have to be processed in two large liquid N2 plants.

Which industrial gas companies are currently involved?

We have not yet used large quantities of gas, because we are still in construction mode. But Air Liquide has been responsible for manufacturing many of the tanks that are already arriving onsite for incorporation into the cryogenic plant.

What industry needs to get involved to make ITER possible?

ITER involves a large number of technologies, many of which are pushing the limits of previous technology. For example, global production of superconductor strand (the niobium-titanium and niobium-tin that makes up ITER’s superconductor magnets) was increased by a factor of about 8x for the multi-year production campaign for these materials. Similarly, the construction of the ITER tokamak involves naval-sized components (i.e., at a scale like that of shipbuilding) but combined with the precision of a watchmaker, requiring tolerances in the millimetre range.

Examples of the technology areas used in ITER: cryogenics, robotics and remote handling, power electronics, electromagnetics, massive forging and casting, vacuum technologies, electron and cyclotron heating applications, and large applications of nuclear construction, cooling water systems, electrical conversion, etc., including the extraordinary logistics of ITER’s global shipping requirements for components weighing up to several hundred tonnes.

In the past, we’ve read about the ITER Project experiencing schedule delays. What can you tell us about those delays – and the current status?

Under the ITER Agreement, ITER Members contribute about 90% of their funding in the form of components. Therefore, in addition to being one of the most complex machines ever built, the 35 countries involved are all contributing to the design, manufacturing, construction, and assembly of the ITER tokamak and support systems. This makes for an exceedingly complex management scenario. Managed well, everyone learns from everyone else (as planned), and fusion expertise grows globally in a collaborative way. But if not managed well, the consequences will be evident, especially at the interfaces between components and systems that are supplied from all over the world – and this can result in delays and cost overruns.

The delays in ITER’s earlier years came from two root causes. First, the ITER schedule and cost estimates were in some ways externally imposed based on political considerations, rather than accounting realistically for the complexity of the machine and a comprehensive, integrated understanding of how to build it. Second, there were clearly management shortcomings. In addition to the multinational aspects of the project, it is a mix of three sectors: the academic-scientific expertise of the past 5-6 decades; the governmental-intergovernmental processes that govern budget and procurement; and the industrial-construction sector that must build the machine. Each of these sectors has differing priorities. Project management—accountability, systems engineering, risk management, etc.—must be correspondingly exceptional.

I am pleased to say that in the past two years, under the leadership of Director-General Bernard Bigot, the project has been put on track for success. More integrated management, coupled with more efficient decision-making and a comprehensive review of the machine itself, has led to a new overall project schedule and cost. Since November 2015, when the new schedule was put in place, we have met every milestone agreed by our oversight body, the ITER Council ­– while staying on schedule and on budget. That may sound straightforward. It is not. The machine has not gotten less complex. Plenty of risks have arisen, and will continue to arise. We have simply gotten bet

2017 is now drawing to a close with ITER noting the projects most significant achievements for the year:

In 2017, the ITER Organisation celebrated its 10th anniversary and the project passed the halfway mark on the road to First Plasma. As preparation for machine assembly began—the cryoplant, the twin Magnet Power Conversion buildings, and the cooling tower zone received their first equipment.

In the Poloidal Field Coil Winding Facility, Europe began manufacturing poloidal field coil number five. Nearby in the Cryostat Workshop, Indian contractors started work on a second cryostat section – the lower cylinder – and continued to advance welding and non-destructive examination testing of the cryostat base.

In factories on three continents, the ITER Members continued to manufacture strategic ITER components that were delivered as planned to the ITER site.