A 360 view of 'Planet ITER'ITER
The world's first nuclear fusion plant is on track by reaching the halfway point to 'first plasma.' A couple of weeks ago, the director general with the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) confirmed that the project had made it to the halfway point.
The facility, equipped with an international team of nuclear engineers, was constructed with the hopes of generate plasma by 2025. If accomplished, that plasma could lead to the start of nuclear fusion reactors.
"With ITER and fusion energy, we have a chance to leave a powerful and positive legacy for future generations, instead of the current energy outlook," Bernard Bigot, director-general of ITER, said in an interview with Live Science.
So how exactly does a nuclear fusion reactor gauge what's halfway when measuring something never before accomplished? Here's how ITER officials determined 'halfway':
"Design, which accounts for approximately one-fourth of the scope, is now close to 95 percent complete; manufacturing and building, which represents almost half of the total activities is close to 53 percent complete. Do a little math and the result is clear: in terms of activities that need to be completed, ITER is now halfway to its first operational event."
ITER differs from more traditional nuclear reactors that generate power through fission -- splitting larger atoms into smaller ones. ITER's reactions will combine hydrogen isotopes of deuterium and tritium; and at extremely high temperatures, hydrogen gas can become plasma. (Plasma is often referred to as the fourth state of matter.)
Researchers estimate that plasma at the core of the reactor could be as hot as 270 million degrees Fahrenheit. That's approximately 10 times hotter than our sun. How will the machinery not overheat? The team will cool the massive superconductors around the core to a minus 455 degrees Fahrenheit. That's the average cold of space.
ITER officials acknowledge they've got a long way to go on the project, but they remain incredibly hopeful. The organization hopes to continue with same commitment from its team as when the project first started.
"Looking ahead, we will need the commitment and support of every member to maintain this performance," Bigot wrote in a statement. "By choosing to build this machine in an integrated way, we have made our success interdependent. A shortfall in the commitment of any member, if it impacts the delivery of that member’s components, will have a cascading effect in delays and costs to all other members."
And it's not just ITER trying to tap into nuclear fusion. In May of this year, the UK's ST40 reactor achieved first plasma. The goal for that tokamak reactor to heat up to seven times hotter than our sun by 2018. And, unlike ITER, the ST40 is attempting to facilitate nuclear fusion on a more cost-efficient scale.
However, what remains is that nuclear reactors around the world are developing technology that can go beyond developing plasma.
"So many of the technologies involved are really at the cutting edge," Bigot said in the Live Science interivew. "We are pushing the boundaries in many fields – cryogenics, electromagnetics, even the use of giant tooling devices. Cooling 10,000 tons of superconducting magnet material to minus 269 degrees, for example, is unprecedented in scale."