GLOBAL: Unlocking the sun's energy secrets

Research funding has begun to flow to a global project aimed at harnessing the physics of the stars to create a sustainable and safe nuclear fusion. A consortium of 14 research teams from across Europe has been formed to create a computer simulation of the international ITER fusion reactor, to model the technology required to operate it safely.

The European Union-funded EUR3.65 million (US$5.6 million) EUFORIA project will forge a network of high-powered computers with sufficient capacity to undertake the modelling involving massive amounts of data.

The project is one of many to be launched over the next 30 years as ITER scientists seek to superheat plasma within a strong electromagnetic field so that two light atomic nuclei fuse to form heavier ones. The fusion process releases a large amount of energy which could in theory be harnessed, mirroring the energy source of the sun and the stars.

"On Earth, fusion research is aimed at demonstrating that this energy source can be used to produce electricity in a safe and environmentally benign way, with abundant fuel resources, to meet the needs of a growing world population," says an ITER note.

After years of negotiations, ITER now has a formal organisation operating its work. Based in Cadarache in southern France, this is where the first nuclear fusion reactor will be built. Costs will be vast: early EU calculations suggested construction alone would cost EUR4.57 billion over 10 years (at 2000 prices), with total operating costs over the expected operational lifetime of about 20 years of a similar order.

While overruns can be expected, as long as the ITER partners - the EU, Japan, China, India, South Korea, Russia and the US - maintain their support, the project will inevitably be a wealthy source of research funding and job opportunities.

Under the current allocation, the EU will contribute 45.45%, and China, Japan, Korea, Russia and the US will contribute 9.09% each. Also, as each party is prepared to contribute 10% (50% in the case of Europe), a de facto reserve has been created to deal with unexpected additional costs.

EUFORIA researchers will firstly adapt plasma physics and magnetic confinement fusion codes for use by multiple computer processors, speeding the solution of large problems.
"We try to link the different computer architectures such that the strengths of the respective architecture are made use of to the full extent," said Dr Marcus Hardt, project coordinator from the Karlsruhe Research Centre in Germany, in a European Commission note on EUFORIA.

Research teams are based in France, Finland, Germany, Italy Spain, Poland, Slovenia, Sweden and Britain. Participating higher education institutions include the coordinating Chalmers University of Technologyin Sweden, the Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics in Germany, the Barcelona Supercomputing Centre in Spain, Britain's University of Edinburgh, Finland's Abo Akademi University, France's Louis Pasteur University in Strasbourg, the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia and others.

In another positive development, the ITER organisation and Monaco recently signed a partnership agreement that creates five postdoctoral fellowships on fusion energy and the money to pay for hosting annual international conferences on ITER related research.
Monaco minister Jean Paul Proust said: "It is important to make the public and the principality's economic actors become aware of the ITER project and the stakes it holds for our planet's future."

The tiny but wealthy southern European principality will spend EUR5.5 million on the conferences and fellowships over 10 years. Also, the ITER organisation and the Swiss-based European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN) have signed a cooperation agreement that will see CERN advising the new project regarding the technology and administration needed to run large-scale projects of this kind.

CERN and the ITER will cooperate in the use of technology such as superconductors, magnets, cryogenics, control and data acquisition and complex civil engineering, as well as in financing administration, purchasing, human resources, and sourcing and developing software programmes.

All this aside, the vulnerability of ITER to national government budget squeezes has been highlighted by the US eliminating its 2008 funding for the project (with China replying that it would boost its contribution in return).

In a mea culpa letter to ITER partners, Raymond L Orbach, Under-secretary for Science at the US Department of Energy, promised that "the US is formally committed to meeting our obligations under the ITER joint implementing agreement and that we are doing everything possible to rectify the situation".

In the long term, research topics have been allocated between the various ITER partners, with various pieces of technology required to build the reactor either allocated to particular countries or earmarked for research and development by international teams.


Researchers interested in working directly for ITER, see: