A peep into the future

Last week, 16-20 September, the fusion community convened in Barcelona, Spain for the International Symposium on Fusion Nuclear Technology (ISFNT). More than 750 participants gathered at the Palau de Congressos to be brought up to date on developments in the field of fusion technology and materials and on the construction of ITER—the „symbol and example of global cooperation to tackle a global energy problem,” according to Pere Torres, Secretary of Enterprise and Competitiveness of the Generalitat de Catalunya, as he opened the symposium.

The ISFNT is recognized as one of the main international gatherings on fusion energy with a clear focus on reactor-relevant technology. In its 11th edition last week, the symposium took a close look not only on the current state-of-the-art technology related to ITER, but also dared to look forward to the possible design, requirements and safety aspects of future DEMO reactors and power plants.

The road forward, it seems, is not yet clearly delineated. Different concepts were presented; some countries, like China, seem to even have more than one iron in the fire. Complementing these discussions, a special fusion Roadmap Panel—moderated by prominent fusion representatives—tried to narrow down the key issues on the way to a fusion reactor.

Dedicated workshops addressed future reactor-relevant technologies such as ceramic breeder blankets or the treatment of beryllium; a half-day industrial workshop was set up to provide companies with updated information on the current procurement status of ITER and forthcoming opportunities; no less than 161 posters gave lots of opportunity to exchange and connect. And this is what the ISFNT is all about. In the words of Pere Torres, „This event contributes to the collaboration amongst researchers and allows for the sharing of knowledge.” 

The conference closed with a presentation by South Korea as host to the next ISFNT from 14-18 September 2015 on the island of Jeju.

A call to arms for making fusion happen

To the members of the wider fusion community, the name Dan Clery most likely rings a bell. News editor for the magazine Science since 1993, Dan has closely followed the excitement and frustrations of the quest for fusion energy and, of course, the „making of” ITER. Over the years he has gathered more than enough information to fill regular magazine pages and so he decided to, temporarily, swap the fast beat of a news reporter for the reclusiveness of a book author.

A Piece of the Sun draws the bow from the Big Bang, to Prometheus, to the first scientists working out the details of the fusion reaction, the first machines and experiments, and finally to modern times. None of this is new and may have appeared before in print, but don’t be mistaken! Dan is not only an eloquent writer, but also a skilled journalist with a mission. In his hands, the book is far more than a technical narration of the good old days: it is a political statement … a rousing call to arms for making fusion happen.

„The world energy industry is worth trillions of dollars—divert only a tiny fraction of that into researching fusion and we will soon know if it is workable,” Dan passionately argues. „Some technological dreams just take time to come to fruition,” he writes, drawing the parallel with the Wright brothers and Virgin Galactic’s spacefaring pleasure aircraft. „The cost and time it will take to make fusion work has to be balanced against the enormous benefits it will bring. It won’t damage the climate, won’t pollute and it won’t run out. How can we not try?”

Read an interview of Dan Cleary on the PPPL website.

Thirty four and counting

It was foreseen by the authors of the ITER Agreement, signed in 2006 by the seven ITER Members.

As a research organization, the ITER Organization may conclude scientific collaboration agreements with other international organizations and institutions in the interest of promoting cooperation on fusion as an energy source.

For ITER, collaboration agreements keep ITER scientists and engineers in close touch with work going on in precise domains relating to fusion science and technology; for the laboratories and institutes, they are an opportunity to collaborate with the fusion community’s most advanced experiment.

Since January 2008, the ITER Organization has signed 34 scientific collaboration agreements and another 4 are currently in the preparatory stages. A common thread amongst these agreements is the training of young researchers.

„In the coming years, I envision more and more of this type of scientific exchange for the ITER Organization,” says the Director-General of the ITER Organization, Osamu Motojima. „I would like to open ITER’s door to younger people who will in fact take on a lot of the responsibility for fusion in the future. ITER will be the foremost research laboratory for magnetic fusion. Scientific collaboration agreements enrich the experience of our scientists, and provide training for the next generation of fusion scientists. The ITER Organization is a Centre of Excellence in this area.”

Under these scientific collaboration agreements, the ITER Organization and research institutes can cooperate in academic and scientific fields of mutual interest. „Some of the ideas for collaboration come from our scientists. We have compiled a database of agreements signed by the ITER Organization so that when we’re approached, we can inform them whether we already have an agreement with the institute in question,” says Anna Tyler of Legal Affairs.

Typically, the agreements cover the following type of collaboration: joint supervision of students working on Master’s or PhD theses; joint training and exchange of young scientists, engineers, interns and experts; joint research projects (particularly in plasma physics); and joint seminars.

Collaboration agreements have been signed with laboratories and institutes in Austria , China France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Korea, Monaco, the Netherlands, Spain, Switzerland, Japan,  and the UK—the most recent to date was signed just last month with the Department of Civil and Industrial Engineering at the University of Pisa (Italy).

David Campbell, head of ITER Plasma Operation Directorate, has been able to see the practical benefits of such exchanges. „Because we are aiming to develop ITER as centre of excellence in fusion research, such agreements allow us to develop scientific and technology exchanges with leading fusion research institutions around the world, building a network of fusion research activities which not only supports the preparations for ITER operation, but also contributes to the longer-term realization of the potential of fusion energy.

One of the more exciting aspects of the collboration agreements relates to the training activities and the opportunities they provide for younger researchers to participate in the ITER Project, according to Campbell. "The transfer of knowledge between generations is a key element of the scientific enterprise and an integral component of the development of ITER as an international centre of fusion research.”

First design review within Test Blanket Module program

Last week the ITER project—and the worldwide fusion community—celebrated yet another premiere: the first conceptual design review within the Test Blanket Module (TBM) program, a key technology development paving the way to fusion power. It was not yet the turn of the tritium-breeding test modules to be assessed, but that of the components required for hosting them.
During its operational phase, ITER will draw upon the global (civil) inventory of tritium, currently estimated at 20 kilos.

But future fusion power stations would have to create their own supply of tritium. Part of ITER’s mission is to test different tritium breeding concepts proposed and developed by the Members … concepts that will enable future fusion reactors to produce their fuel within the machine (tritium self-sufficiency) and at the same time extract the heat produced by the fusion reaction and convert it into electricity.

While six different tritium breeding concepts—the Test Blanket Modules—are currently in their pre-conceptual design phase, a group of experts lead by ITER Senior Engineer Guenter Janeschitz last week concluded the first design check of the modules’ frames and housings, as well as the dummy modules that will be needed to substitute for the actual TBM sets in order to close and seal the port plugs in the case of delayed delivery or in case replacement is required. Mario Merola, in charge of ITER’s in-vessel components, called the design review „a significant step forward toward the goal of testing tritium breeding technology.”

The current strategy foresees that the dummy TBM sets and the frames shall be made of water-cooled 316-L(N) steel (ITER grade), a special metal that guarantees reduced activation when exposed to neutrons, no ferromagnetic effects and adequate mechanical properties. To reduce maintenance time, the replacement of a TBM will be performed „off-line,” meaning that the entire port plug (with its TBM sets, plus frame) will be removed, stored in the Hot Cell, and replaced by a new plug with a new set of equipment. Delivery and installation of the six Test Blanket Systems is planned during the machine’s first shutdown period following First Plasma.

„We looked at the design concept from all possible different angles and the requirements have been clearly identified,” the Chairman Guenter Janeschitz stated in the panel’s close-out session, praising the high level of preparation of the review. „A significant effort was made in the presentations to cover, in a quite comprehensive manner, systems requirements, design analysis, interface requirements and manufacturing aspects—therefore, the objectives of the design review were achieved. However, a few issues such as the potential contamination of the port flange, the still-insufficient shielding performance, the attachment of the TBM sets or their dummies to the frame structure, and the expected thermal stresses these components could be exposed will have to be further considered during the post-conceptual design phase.”

Europe delivers a world class test facility

If we are truly committed to the idea of a sustainable energy mix—with fusion as one of the elements—then we need to invest in facilities that will bring us a step closer to the realization of commercial fusion by helping us test the technology and the components of current and future fusion devices.

This is precisely the purpose of the European Dipole project (EDIPO) launched in 2005, whose mission is to manufacture a high field magnet that would ultimately be used to test ITER cable-in-conduit conductors (CICCs) with current up to 100 kA. Switzerland’s Paul Scherrer Institute (PSI), at the Centre of Research in Physics and Plasma (CRPP), is hosting this facility that was built thanks to a collaboration between CRPP, BNG (Babcock Nöll), the European Domestic Agency for ITER (F4E) and the European Commission.

The stakes for EDIPO were high from the very start because it had to meet two important conditions. First, it had to offer the fusion community the possibility to test short sample CICCs in a magnetic field up to 12.5 Tesla—an unprecedented level for this type of facility—in order to mimic the ITER environment. Second, the CICCs had to be tested at this level of magnetic field over a length equivalent to about 800 mm, which is roughly two times the high field length of the conductors currently tested in SULTAN.
Read more in the Fusion for Energy Newsletter.

Why "Plasma"?

"Plasma" is certainly the most frequently pronounced word in the fusion community. But where does the name come from? And why do we use the same term to describe an ionized gas—the „fourth state of matter”—and the yellowish liquid that holds the blood cells in suspension in a living body?

The word „plasma,” derived from the ancient Greek „to mold,” had been in use in medicine and biology for some decades when American chemist and physicist Irving Langmuir (1881-1957) began experimenting on electrical discharges in gas at the General Electric Research and Development Center in upstate New York.

In 1927, Langmuir was working with mercury vapour discharges, studying ion densities and velocity distribution in mercury arc columns. Working closely by his side, a younger physicist named Harold M. Mott-Smith was to remember in a 1971 letter he wrote to Nature how Langmuir finally suggested the word „plasma” to describe the particular distribution he was observing.

Langmuir and his team were acutely aware, as Mott-Smith wrote, that „the credit of a discovery goes not to the man who makes it, but to the man who names it,” adding: „Witness the name of our continent,” which was 'discovered’ by Columbus but christened by the lesser figure Amerigo Vespucci.

The team spent days tossing around names to best describe what they had observed. But nothing came out of these brainstorming sessions until Langmuir „pointed out that the equilibrium part of the discharge acted as a sort of substratum carrying particles of special kinds, like high-velocity electrons […] molecules and ions of gas impurities”—just in the same way blood plasma carries around red and white cells, proteins, hormones and germs.

Langmuir „proposed to call our uniform discharge a 'plasma.’ Of course, we all agreed,” writes Mott-Smith. It took some time, however, for the science community to adopt a word from the field of medicine and biology and give it a different meaning. „The scientific world of physics and chemistry looked askance at this uncouth word and were slow to accept it in their vocabulary […] Then all of a sudden, long after I had left the laboratory, to my pleased surprise, everybody started to talk about plasmas.”

Plasmas have come a long way since 1927. It is now, literally, a household name: Langmuir and his team would have been quite surprised if told that in the early years of the 21st century that plasma TVs would be much more common than the Bakelite radios of his time.

Looking for "a model of engagement"

Fusion research is deeply indebted to Australia: it was the Australian Mark Oliphant who, under the guidance of Ernest Rutherford, realized the first fusion reaction at Cambridge’s Clarendon Laboratory in 1933, and it was in Australia where the only tokamaks outside the Soviet Union operated between 1964 and 1969.

Over the past half-century, the country’s small but active fusion community has developed a strong reputation, carrying out seminal theoretical work in plasma physics, developing significant plasma diagnostic innovations and making important contributions to fusion materials research.

Many Australian fusion physicists are closely associated to the ITER project. While Australia is not an official Member, these physicists are eager to see their country engage with it. As yet, no formal institutional collaboration has been established.

On his visit to ITER, last September, Australian National University physicist Matthew Hole, who chairs the Australian ITER Forum, shared his hopes for Australia to become more involved.  "ITER," he said, "will define the fusion research program for at least the next generation. We’re keen to be part of that enterprise …"

How could Australia be more closely associated to ITER? The question was at the centre of the „very useful conversations” that Adi Paterson, the Chief Executive Officer of the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO), had with the ITER management when he visited here on 20 February.

„A project the size and scope of ITER cannot be limited to only seven Members,” explains Paterson. „ITER has to think of countries like Australia that can connect to the project in a very effective manner outside of a full membership arrangement and potentially form a new model of engagement.”

In this context, ANSTO has an important role to play. „My job is to help define and implement a coherent strategy and assist in strengthening the fusion community at home” adds Paterson. „We need to initiate exchanges, develop knowledge on the real questions of diagnostics, 3D fields, energetic particles, collision cross-sections, materials, neutronics…”

The „model of engagement” doesn’t exist yet, but both sides are eager to create one. Seeing the reality of the project’s progress comforted Paterson in his determination. Along with the obvious progress of construction and of components manufacturing, what makes ITER real in the eye of ANSTO’s CEO is „the milestone that was accomplished last November. When the nuclear safety regulator says 'you can carry on’, this is a huge accolade, and one that brought confidence to the whole fusion community worldwide.”

Romanelli sees JET as "main risk mitigation" for ITER

On the afternoon last year when the European tokamak JET attempted first plasma after an 18-month shutdown, Associate Leader Francesco Romanelli remained in his first-floor office. „I wasn’t expecting the machine to perform so faultlessly on its first attempt,” he later explained. „Besides, things had a way of going wrong when I entered the room, so maybe it was better after all.”

That anecdote and others were related by Romanelli at last week’s Inside ITER seminar, during which he gave a first-hand overview of the ITER-like wall campaign that has been running at JET since that first (very successful) day back in August 2011. Three thousand installable items and 16,000 tiles had been replaced in the machine (non-metal carbon tiles were replaced by the metals beryllium and tungsten) to equip JET with the same materials mix chosen for ITER.

Romanelli reported in detail on the experimental results so far: demonstration of low fuel retention, tungsten divertor successfully tested, observations related to the dynamics of disruptions …

„Overall, the operation of the ITER-like wall has been easier than expected, giving us the confidence that the fusion community is making the right choice for ITER. We see JET as the main risk mitigation measure in support of ITER.”

The European Fusion Development Agreement is already looking ahead to other roles for JET—developing plasma scenarios in ITER-relevant configurations and testing the compatibility of the wall with the use of tritium. „JET can provide unique input in a number of technical and operational areas.”

David Campbell, director of ITER’s Plasma Operation Directorate, agrees: „The crucial ITER-like wall experiment will give us insight—ahead of ITER operation—as to how fusion plasmas will behave in the presence of the plasma-facing mixture that we’re planning to use in ITER.”
For more on JET’s ITER-like wall campaign, visit the EFDA-JET website.

F4E appoints Henrik Bindslev as new Director

Henrik Bindslev was appointed last Friday 25 October as the new Director of the European Joint Undertaking for ITER and the Development of Fusion Energy (Fusion for Energy). He is currently the Vice Dean for Research at Aarhus University, Faculty of Science and Technology.

Stuart Ward, Chair of the Fusion for Energy Governing Board, took the opportunity to congratulate Henrik Bindslev on his new position and thanked all members of the Board for their collaboration taking together this important decision.

"I am honoured to have been appointed Director of Fusion for Energy at a time that Europe’s contribution to ITER enters a decisive stage and rapid progress will be made on all fronts. It is the moment to engage actively with Europe’s industry and fusion community to honour our commitment to this prestigious international project" said Bindslev.

Henrik Bindslev has been engaged in energy research for more than 20 years and has considerable experience in research management, both in Denmark and internationally. He is currently Vice Dean for research at Aarhus University, Faculty of Science and Technology and past Chair of the European Energy Research Alliance (EERA). He is a delegate to the European Strategy Forum on Research Infrastructures (ESFRI) and Chairman of ESFRI’s Energy Strategy Working Group.

Previously, he was the Director of Risø DTU, the Danish National Laboratory for Sustainable Energy, managing 700 members of staff.
He was educated at Denmark’s Technical University and completed a DPhil in Plasma Physics at the University of Oxford. He worked as a fusion researcher at different facilities including ten years at the Joint European Torus (JET), Europe’s biggest fusion research device, and has published more than 150 papers.

The Director is appointed by Fusion for Energy’s Governing Board for a period of five years, once renewable up to five years. The appointment is made on the basis of a list of candidates proposed by the European Commission after an open competition, following a publication in the Official Journal of the European Communities.

One more step towards the final green light

On 29 July, a new milestone was reached in the licensing process of ITER. A little more than one month after being notified that our proposals on the Tokamak’s operational conditions and design fulfilled the French safety requirements, we have now received from the Autorité de Sûreté Nucléaire (ASN)  the draft of the Décret d’Autorisation de Création — the final green light from the French Authorities to create our installation.
We are currently analyzing this draft and we will soon send back our comments to ASN. Then, a discussion will be organized with a college of ASN experts and at long last the final decree will be published — hopefully before the end of the year.

This is a lengthy, complex, demanding — sometimes frustrating… — process. But I must say it is also a very good process. ITER is the first fusion installation that will receive a full nuclear licence. And this is very important, not only for us here at ITER but for the whole worldwide fusion community.

We have always claimed that fusion is safe and in the past two years, we went through an exceptionally strict and challenging process to demonstrate that it is indeed. Now an independent body of experts, with a deserved reputation for being among the „toughest” in the world, is in the process of validating our claim. And again, this is a first: no fusion installation, not even JET or TFTR which, at one point implemented deuterium + tritium fusion, went through this process.

Twenty-seven years have passed since President Reagan and Secretary Gorbatchev met in Geneva and laid the ground for the project of an international experimental fusion reactor „for the benefit of all mankind”.

We all feel a deep satisfaction in seeing these 27 years of hard work and dedication now converging into a decision that, in many ways, is historical.

An ITER view from Down Under

Anisotropy… Bayesian interference… flow and chaos in fusion plasmas…, these are some of the topics that Matthew Hole, a fellow at the Plasma Research Laboratory of the Australian National University (ANU), discussed last week at a meeting with ITER physicists.

Down at ANU, 17,000 kilometres from the ITER site, the interest for fusion and for its international „flagship experiment” is strong. For years, the fusion community there has been active in trying to establish some official form of cooperation with ITER. The Australian ITER Forum, which Matthew Hole chairs, was created in 2006 to promote such an engagement.

In Australia, as in any other part of the world, a fusion physicist’s path always ends up crossing that of ITER. Individual involvements in ITER-related issues (such as Diagnostics, which is one major area of Australia’s fusion community’s expertise) are many but no formal, institutional, collaboration has yet been established.

„The fusion community there is eager to see Australia engage with ITER. But we are scientists, working in universities for the most part. What we need is an endorsement from the Australian government… and the necessary resources.”

The form this collaboration could take is open to discussion. „It is clear that Australia will not be a 'major partner’ like the present ITER Members,” says Matthew. „Australia has a rich diversity of energy options, so the national energy security driver is not perceived to be as strong.

The „frustration” Matthew acknowledges hasn’t dimmed his enthusiasm and he remains „passionate” about the whole issue. „ITER,” he says, „will define the fusion research program for at least the next generation. We want to be part of that enterprise…”

Last Wednesday in Cadarache, Matthew got his first opportunity to feel the reality of the project that has been on his mind for so many years. "The ITER site is huge," he said, "it is one thing to know the basics of the machine, but quite another to appreciate the size and scale of the entire site. What also struck me is the enthusiasm and helpfulness of the ITER staff, as well as the friendliness of the people of Aix-en-Provence and Marseille…"

The sheer size of ITER might dwarf that of the recently upgraded H-1 NF stellarator operated at ANU’s Plasma Fusion Research Facility, but if size matters, it is not all that fusion is about. Australia’s fusion device is small (major radius R=1.0 m), but the fusion community there is strong, enthusiastic and determined, and the country has a long history of breakthroughs and innovation in fusion research.

The challenge of communicating a grand project

„Inspiring,” was the comment from Gieljan de Vries from the Dutch Institute for Fundamental Energy Research (DIFFER) after last week’s meeting with the communication staff from the ITER Organization, the seven Domestic Agencies and other major fusion labs. „There are nice ideas floating around to get more cooperation going.”

The communication teams from the ITER Organization and the Domestic Agencies meet once a year in person. Monthly video conferences fill the gap and are useful for keeping up with one another, but these cannot replace face-to-face discussions on how to develop and implement new ideas and joint strategies.

Last week, 28-29 June, the international communicators for the project met at the ITER Headquarters in Cadarache to swap news and—in order to further enhance communication within the world-spanning fusion community—this time the „circle of friends” was expanded. For the second time, Petra Nieckchen, the head of communication at EFDA/JET, joined the meeting, as did Gieljan de Vries, DIFFER; Annie-Laure Pecquet and Jean-Marc Ané, Institut de la Recherche sur la Fusion Magnetique (IRFM); Isabella Milch, Max-Planck-Institute for Plasmaphysics (IPP); and Kitta McPherson, Princeton Plasma Physics Lab (PPPL).

The first day of this two-day exchange was devoted to reports on the most recent progress in each ITER Member. It soon became obvious that action is now shifting toward industry, judged by the number of facts, figures, and photographs that were presented.

Guests were also treated to a tour around the ITER construction site and a close-up look into the Tokamak Pit. While for many of the 25 participants this was not the first time on site, progress made since their last visit was tangible. For others, it was a very welcome opportunity to see the action first hand rather than looking at the (regularly updated!) construction images on the ITER website.

The second day started with a tour to the neighbouring Tore Supra Tokamak and a demonstration of how the design development and design integration is done at ITER with the help of a „virtual reality” room, a 3D-experience that left the group very impressed.

Back from this excursion it was time to meet Robert Matthews, an award-winning science journalist who worked as correspondent for The Times and The Sunday Telegraph. He is currently a science consultant for BBC Focus. He also reads physics at Oxford University, is a chartered physicist, and a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society.

He spoke about the challenges of communicating a grand challenge project such as ITER. His presentation and the following discussion, to which a second guest-speaker, Norbert Frischauf—a high-energy physicist and communication consultant—joined in, proved highly inspiring and will certainly have an impact on how we view and understand our work in the future.