The world accelerates in the search for an inexhaustible, green and safe source of energy in nuclear fusion. While the United Kingdom draws a plan to have the first reactor prototype in 2032 and ITER (the consortium of three continents that builds the largest complex in France) struggles to keep the deadlines within this decade, the Italian energy group Eni, in collaboration with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), ensures that “it will have a first plant in the United States in 2025”, as confirmed by Monica Spada, head of Research and Technological Innovation of the Italian company, during the Maker Faire. Creators), closed on Sunday in Rome. The global energy crisis has turned the scientific marathon that seeks to reproduce the power of the Sun into a sprint.
Nuclear fusion is the door to a global hope that Spada sums up by recalling the founder of Eni, Enrico Mattei: “Bring energy to everyone, in a sustainable way and make it a common good”. For this achievement, an attempt is made to reproduce a solar phenomenon by joining two nuclei of light atoms to form another nucleus, releasing energy. Deuterium and tritium, isotopes of hydrogen, are currently used. Both generate a new particle that releases 17.6 mega-electron volts [MeV], which means that a quantity of 2.5 grams of both generates energy similar to that of a football field full of burning coal. Its potential against any fossil fuel is 10⁷ higher.
The main problems are the high pressures and temperatures of the fusion plasma (the fuel of a reactor), which can be higher than those of the Sun: 200 million degrees at the center. Current research attempts to confine this plasma in magnetic cages to keep it levitating in a vacuum inside the reactor in order to minimize the effects of wall contact and avoid fluctuations.
For Spada, the necessary technology is already mature and he plans to have the first plant in three years in the United States, where Eni is part of Commonwealth Fusion Systems, a corporation that emerged from MIT in 2018: “We started working on this project because we were the first to understand that there is enormous potential. We are working to make it a reality as soon as possible. The first Sparc plant will be in 2025 and, although it will not be connected to the grid on that date, it will be the first prototype”. Sparc is a compact net fusion device, medium in size, but with a very powerful magnetic field. The forecast to have a complete system that distributes energy is in 2028.
For this, it is necessary to overcome another challenge, once confinement has been achieved: that the energy generated be greater than that used to achieve fusion. The Joint European Torus (JET) team, led by the United Kingdom, has achieved a record at the beginning of the year: 59 megajoules for five seconds, the equivalent of the energy needed to boil the water in 60 kettles. Although it does not seem like much, the record doubles the one achieved 25 years ago, it supports the design of current reactors and shows the way to make them efficient.
Eni’s confidence in nuclear fusion has led it to raise the largest individual pavilion at the Maker Faire in Rome, the largest European technological exhibition, organized by the Chamber of Commerce of the Italian capital, with funding from the EU, among other institutions , and to which EL PAIS has been invited. The installation, created by the architects Carlo Ratti and Italo Rota (authors of their country’s pavilion at the 2020 Dubai Expo), simulates a journey inside a magnetic cage. “Visitors can feel like the particles of fusion”, summarizes Ratti.
Two visitors to the Maker Faire in Rome, inside the simulator of a magnetic cage.
“It’s like a teaser [a small sample] at scale where the public can enter and understand the process. The important thing is to ensure that the visitor gets involved with reality, that they can understand how we can improve thanks to science. We wanted to tell the story, but also make sure that the viewer can see it, get into it”, explains the architect.
The other challenge has been to develop a message for a heterogeneous audience that ranges from high school and high school students to experts and businessmen who have in Rome the meeting point with the technology of the future. “We had to reach a middle ground of what was understandable, but without being simplistic,” adds Ratti.
He is also convinced of the future of nuclear fusion, for which there are hundreds of companies and scientists working in all fields, from physics to engineering, including materials experts. Like them, he warns that the nuclear solution will not be unique. “There is not going to be a single source of energy. There will be a mixture, essential to decarbonize the planet. The nuclear one is going to be one more”, he comments.
His vision of an increasingly immediate future is that these diverse facilities, in accordance with the potential of each area, “are going to be inserted on a daily basis in cities, in the urban landscape”. And not only in the big capitals, because Ratti believes that “neither Europe nor the United States need to develop large cities because the population in these is beginning to decrease.” “We are involved in new projects related to urban agriculture. Making everything more sustainable is at the heart of what architecture has to do today”, he concludes.
Italo Rota adds that the basis of this new future, “where technology is so important”, is participation. It has been one of the key elements for the design of the nuclear fusion reactor simulator: “That people understand the whole process, not only the charging of an electric car, for example, but where it is produced, how it is distributed and how it is consume”.
Rota defends a change of individual mentality to favor collective transformations and the combination of the technological with the natural. “Many elements of life are in technology and this is part of life. There must be many solutions for cities, for the body of the population, and a balance must be found”