Little Big Bang in Bottle is Big Deal

Posted by: 10. March 2014

Big, complex, expensive machines are cool.  I admit it—I’m still impressed every time I see a four meter vertical lathe turning a huge cast housing or a hundred horsepower milling cut on a double column machining center.  Somehow, big machines seem to highlight man’s ability to overcome the forces of nature in a way that few other achievements can.   Today, another very special big machine is under construction in the Provence region of France.  If they ever actually finish building it, and if it works, ITER will become my new standard for the most impressive, complex, expensive, big machine, by far.

ITER, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, has been called “A Star in a Bottle,” by Raffi Khatchadourian, staff writer for The New Yorker magazine.  In Latin, iter means the way.  Put simply, ITER will be a nuclear fusion reactor that creates more energy than it consumes.  It may not be the largest machine ever built (though it will weigh 46 million pounds), but it will certainly be the most complex: It will have millions of parts and hundreds of assemblies, based on theoretical designs, built by engineering teams from 35 countries.  And because it’s conservatively estimated to cost over $22 billion to complete, there is no close second, most expensive machine.  But if it works, the cost will be cheap, by any standard.   If ITER is successful, it could save the planet from ecological disaster and power the world for millions of years at a fraction of the cost per kilowatt hour compared to what we pay today.  But despite all the time, money, and brain-power that’s been committed, generating controlled thermonuclear energy has remained an elusive goal.

Yet today, less than 10 years out from scheduled ignition, ITER is seen in two lights.  The project has been plagued by delays, funding shortages, international political wrangling, and internal power struggles.  And these challenges pale in comparison to the seemingly endless technical conundrums.  When nuclear fusion occurs, even at the single-atom level, ambient temperatures rise. In order for ITER to succeed, temperatures within the chamber will exceed 200 million degrees, many times hotter than the sun.  Under those conditions, how can magnets suspend a synthetic star inside a vessel while withstanding fatigue, degradation, or total meltdown of the entire assembly?  Now, that’s a conundrum!

On the other hand, measurable, incremental progress and essential goals have been achieved that have created conditions needed for the breakthrough that could turn the ITER dream into reality.  If it happens, some say that achievement would easily surpass the building of the pyramids as mankind’s most significant accomplishment.  That’s not hard to believe if ITER means saving the world from disaster.

If the most dire predictions are correct, greenhouse gases will finish us all off in less than 100 years.  But even less urgent predictions don’t leave us much time to find an alternative source of non-toxic, renewable energy.  What’s cooler than a big machine that overcomes the powerful forces of nature?  One that can harness them.  

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