Artificial sun: the United States and Russia are building a unique thermonuclear reactor
The construction of the world's first experimental thermonuclear reactor, ITER, has begun at the Cadarache Research Center in southern France, 65 km from Marseille. The opening ceremony was opened by President Emmanuel Macron - to music from the Star Wars movie saga, writes Air force.
As noted by Wikipedia, the name ITER (ITER) was originally an abbreviation for the English International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor); now the name is associated with the Latin word iter - path.
Scientists seriously call ITER an artificial sun. In a vacuum chamber the size of a 10-storey building - 30 meters in height and the same in diameter - it is planned to reproduce on an industrial scale the process of thermonuclear fusion that powers our star.
Russia is not only one of the main partners of this ambitious scientific project, but also its oldest participant. The very idea of a thermonuclear reactor, which the whole world is now trying to implement without exaggeration, belongs to Soviet scientists from the Institute of Atomic Energy. Kurchatov.
In theory, thermonuclear fusion is an inexhaustible source of energy. Just a few grams of hydrogen fuel is enough to provide heat and electricity to thousands of homes, and a pineapple-sized "briquette" can replace 10 tons of coal.
Only unlike traditional thermal or nuclear power plants, a thermonuclear reactor does not pollute the atmosphere with greenhouse gas emissions and does not leave toxic radioactive waste.
“We were inspired by the Universe and the stars, where thermonuclear fusion creates energy for billions of years ahead,” said ITER CEO Bernard Bigot.
The project participants emphasize: ITER is an experimental reactor. This is not a thermonuclear power plant, but a site for an unprecedented physical experiment.
However, if everything goes according to the plan, this experiment will determine the future of all energy on the planet.
“ITER is an absolutely amazing scientific project. He united the whole world to create a clean and renewable energy source - the energy of the future, - the head of the British Atomic Energy Agency Ian Chapman told the BBC. "This is an opportunity to demonstrate to the whole world that a thermonuclear fusion reaction is possible on Earth."
Sputnik, caviar, vodka, tokamak
ITER is the largest scientific construction site in the history of mankind. The experiment involves 35 countries, including India, China, Russia, the USA, South Korea, Japan and the EU countries (plus Great Britain and Switzerland) - this is 80% of the entire world economy and more than half of the world's population.
At the same time, all participating countries acknowledge that the authorship of the idea of a thermonuclear reactor belongs to Russia. The very word “tokamak” (this is how the type of reactor plant is called) is a Russian abbreviation: a toroidal chamber with magnetic coils.
“A tokamak is a donut made of plasma through which a current flows,” Anatoly Krasilnikov, head of the Russian ITER agency, explains to the BBC. - This is one of those words that the whole world has learned thanks to Soviet, Russian scientists. "Sputnik", "caviar", "vodka", "tokamak" - any foreigner will understand these words without translation. "
Krasilnikov has been engaged in thermonuclear fusion (or, as experts call him, thermonuclear fusion) for over 40 years. In 1981 he graduated from Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology and went to work at the Kurchatov Institute. And in 1985, a historic agreement was signed between the United States and the USSR on the joint construction of a tokamak.
“Gorbachev and Reagan agreed to build a reactor together as an example of the fact that two great powers can not only fight against each other in the Cold War, but also do something together, implement some joint scientific projects,” Krasilnikov recalls. "And soon Japan and the European Union joined us."
After the end of the Cold War, the United States unilaterally withdrew from the agreement - in the expectation that the project would have to be curtailed without American funding. However, the remaining partners continued their work - moreover, India, China and South Korea joined the development of the tokamak. In Washington, it seems, they realized that they miscalculated.
“Then the States asked to be returned, and it seems that in 2004 they were accepted back,” said the head of the Russian ITER agency. - So if they come out now, it's okay. The project is not determined by them, and they are not the key contributors. "
After the French Cadarache was approved as the site for the construction of the reactor, the EU took over the bulk of funding (45%). The rest of the expenses of the participating countries, including Russia and the United States, are divided equally.
"This is the Sun on Earth"
The fuel in the tokamak is two types of hydrogen (called isotopes) - deuterium and tritium. Unlike oil, gas and uranium ore, the reserves of both are practically unlimited: one is produced on an industrial scale from the water of the World Ocean, the other - from lithium, as a result of a fairly simple reaction.
Hundreds of tokamaks have been created in the world, but ITER is the first reactor where thermonuclear fusion is planned to be supported by a chain reaction of combustion of the plasma itself. To do this, you just need to “just” heat the hydrogen up to several million degrees and somehow hold it without letting the incandescent plasma scatter.
“This is the Sun on Earth, only with a temperature 10 times higher, - explains Krasilnikov. - But the Sun is a huge ball, it holds itself by gravity, and we use a magnetic field for this. It is impossible to melt it - it’s like a magnetic wall, and this is the uniqueness of the Soviet invention ”.
How it works:
- several grams of deuterium and tritium, hydrogen isotopes, are injected into the hollow ring of the tokamak;
- hydrogen is heated to a temperature of several million degrees, turning into plasma - an ionized gas in which electrons are torn away from the nuclei of atoms;
- the magnetic field, provided by superconducting magnets with a total weight of 10 thousand tons, holds the plasma and gives it its shape;
- when the temperature reaches about 150 million degrees (this is 10 times hotter than the sun), a thermonuclear reaction begins;
- deuterium and tritium atoms merge, forming one helium-4 atom and one neutron, which has a huge energy (about 3,5 MeV);
- neutrons leave the magnetic trap and, due to their kinetic energy, heat the water in the walls of the tokamak;
- the water turns into steam, which turns the turbines.
But the main difference, according to scientists, is the absolute safety of a thermonuclear reactor, since there is simply nothing to explode there.
“In the event of an accident, our bagel will simply go out and will have to be re-lit,” assures Krasilnikov. - Plasma temperature in ITER is about 200-300 million degrees. Even if it happens that the magnetic field will not withstand and the plasma splashes out onto the reactor wall, the temperature will immediately drop by an order of magnitude - and the reaction will simply stop. "
"Everything that only mankind has created"
All experts agree that no country in the world would have been able to carry out a grandiose project alone. And it's not even about money, but about the unique know-how developed by scientists in the framework of international cooperation.
“In essence, this is a club of technologically advanced countries, each of which has brought its own technology to the project,” says Krasilnikov. “We came up with a tokamak, someone came up with the first wall, someone - a method of additional heating, someone - the best injectors, and someone - superconductors ... ITER has combined everything that humanity has just created on its site”.
For example, the magnetic coils of a reactor. Each of them is the size of a four-story house and weighs 360 tons. To create superconductivity, the magnets are cooled with liquid helium to -269 degrees Celsius.
The 13-meter center solenoid weighs 1000 tons and creates a magnetic field strong enough to lift an aircraft carrier into the air.
Most of the systems were created in collaboration with several partners at once. For example, one of the parts collected on Tuesday was created under the responsibility of Russia - that is, it was developed by Russian scientists in St. Petersburg (Efremov Research Institute of Electrophysical Equipment) - but it was assembled by contractors in Germany.
Under the partnership agreement, all ITER member states have equal rights to use the tokamak and all technologies used in its construction. Leaving the project, any participating country runs the risk of being in scientific isolation.
However, no one is going to go out. According to the project participants, ITER is also a unique social experiment: when people from different cultures, with different mentality work together, they learn from each other and understand how to communicate with each other - and this is no less important than everything else.
“In a political sense, our countries will surely experience both a warming and a cold snap in relations,” Krasilnikov suggests. "But ITER will go forward like an icebreaker."
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