Raffi Khatchadourian on the race to make fusion power a reality:
Years from now—maybe in a decade, maybe sooner—if all goes according to plan, the most complex machine ever built will be switched on in an Alpine forest in the South of France. The machine, called the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, or ITER, will stand a hundred feet tall, and it will weigh twenty-three thousand tons—more than twice the weight of the Eiffel Tower. At its core, densely packed high-precision equipment will encase a cavernous vacuum chamber, in which a super-hot cloud of heavy hydrogen will rotate faster than the speed of sound, twisting like a strand of DNA as it circulates. The cloud will be scorched by electric current (a surge so forceful that it will make lightning seem like a tiny arc of static electricity), and bombarded by concentrated waves of radiation. Beams of uncharged particles—the energy in them so great it could vaporize a car in seconds—will pour into the chamber, adding tremendous heat. In this way, the circulating hydrogen will become ionized, and achieve temperatures exceeding two hundred million degrees Celsius—more than ten times as hot as the sun at its blazing core.
It will essentially be a miniature star. Yes, the kind found in space.
Well, at least theoretically:
What will happen when ITER is turned on? The answer, as with all experiments, is something of a mystery, since no one has yet produced a plasma that is hot and dense and durable enough to heat itself. Will such a thing be more difficult to contain, or will it possess an unforeseen equilibrium?
This reads like complete science fiction, but it’s very real. The billions spent — and the billions yet to be spent — by several governments will prove it.