Scientists have been studying for decades the possibility of obtaining energy through nuclear fusion, a process inverse to the fission that occurs in conventional atomic power plants, and the Swiss facility that collaborates in this research today revealed its secrets to journalists on the occasion of its 30th anniversary.
The Tokamak of the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), a device that, according to its managers, proudly attempts to "recreate the Sun on Earth", was shown to journalists today in order to promote research that is gaining interest in the context of climate change.
In a world where even the United Nations is calling for an end to the use of fossil fuels, the world is looking more than ever at this possible future energy source without emissions, with much less dangerous waste than fission and which could use hydrogen, one of the most abundant elements on the planet, as its main raw material.
"We estimate that there are reserves for tens or hundreds of thousands of years, it doesn't actually create waste, and since it doesn't produce chain reactions there is no risk of explosions," Yves Martin, deputy director of the Swiss Plasma Center that manages the Tokamak, told EFE. Following Einstein's notes
The device, whose name is a Russian acronym for "toroidal chamber with magnetic coils," is used to fuse two hydrogen isotopes (deuterium and tritium) to obtain energy by converting them into helium and neutrons.
This reaction fulfills Einstein's famous formula E=mc2, and is similar to that which occurs inside the Sun and other stars, giving rise to the enormous amounts of energy that are released into the universe.
To achieve this fusion, in the Tokamak, hydrogen isotopes are heated by microwaves and particle injections up to 100 million degrees (a temperature even higher than that of the Sun's core), which transforms them into plasma, the fourth state of matter (solid-liquid-liquid-gas-plasma).
Powerful magnetic fields are then used to confine this plasma at such a high temperature in this toroidal-shaped chamber (i.e., similar to that of a doughnut).
The big challenge that prevents nuclear fusion from being a viable energy source in the world for now is the fact that the energy needed to heat deuterium or tritium to very high temperatures is higher than that obtained from their fusion, and that part of it is lost through contact with the walls of the toroid. Close to cost-effectiveness
However, facilities similar to those in Switzerland in countries such as the United States or the United Kingdom have already succeeded in producing slightly more energy than is used, and the ITER project in southern France, on which the world's major powers are working, is expected to achieve ten times more energy than it consumes in the future.
"ITER will start operating perhaps in three or four years, and after that it will be operating at its full possible capacity, but it will not yet be producing electricity. We are already working on the next step, called DEMO, which we hope can be connected to the power grid by the middle of the century," Martin said.
The Swiss facility is working especially on the question of "taming" the plasma to avoid energy losses, directing it by means of magnetic systems so that it adopts more "aerodynamic" and energy-efficient shapes.
"We have found that certain shapes that we call 'snowflakes', 'super X divertor' or 'negative triangularity' are better than the original ones; they are already being used in ITER and could also be used in the future DEMO," explained the expert.
Martin stressed that the growing interest in the search for alternative energies, which has also been stimulated by the increase in gas or oil prices brought about by the war in Ukraine, is noticeable in an increased investment mood.
"In the U.S. many private companies are already working on fusion, while in Europe there is still a mix of public and private initiatives. Germany has recently put more money on the table, and the UK is also pushing this research to a large extent," he said.