The world is accelerating the search for an inexhaustible, green and safe source of energy in nuclear fusion. As the UK plots a plan to have its first reactor prototype in 2032, ITER (the union of three continents that builds the largest complex in France) struggles to keep deadlines through this decade, Italian energy group Eni, in collaboration with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) ensures ) “It will have its first plant in the United States in 2025,” confirmed Mónica Spada, head of research and technology innovation at the Italian company, during Maker Faire. Creators), closed on Sundays in Rome. The global energy crisis has turned a science marathon seeking to reproduce the power of the sun into a sprint.
Nuclear fusion is the door of global hope that Spada sums up by calling Eni’s founder, Enrico Mattei: “bringing energy to all, in a sustainable way and making it a public good”. To achieve this feat, an attempt was made to reproduce a solar phenomenon by joining two nuclei of light atoms to form another nucleus, releasing energy. Deuterium and tritium currently use isotopes of hydrogen. Both generate a new particle that releases 17.6 MeV [MeV], which means that an amount of 2.5 grams of both generates energy similar to that of a soccer field filled with burning coal. Its potential against any fossil fuel is 10°C higher.
The main problems are the high pressures and temperatures of the fusion plasma (reactor fuel), which can be higher than those in the Sun: 200 million degrees in the center. The current research attempts to confine this plasma in magnetic cages to keep it elevated in a vacuum inside the reactor in order to reduce the effects of wall contact and avoid fluctuations.
For Spada, the technology needed is already mature and he plans to have his first plant in three years in the US, where Eni is part of Commonwealth Fusion Systems, a company that spun out of MIT in 2018: “We started working on this project because we were the first to I realize there is huge potential. We are working to make it a reality as soon as possible. Sparc’s first plant will be in 2025, and while it won’t be online on that date, it will be its first prototype.” Sparc is a compact grating fusion device, medium in size, but with a very strong magnetic field. It is expected to have a complete system distributing power in 2028.
For this, it is necessary to overcome another challenge, once confinement is achieved: that the energy generated be greater than that used to achieve fusion. The Joint European Torus Team (JET), led by the United Kingdom, set a record at the start of the year: 59 megajoules for five seconds, the equivalent of the energy needed to boil water in 60 kettles. Although it doesn’t seem like much, the record doubles the number achieved 25 years ago, it supports the design of current reactors and shows how to make them efficient.
Eni’s confidence in nuclear fusion led to the raising of the largest single pavilion at the Maker Faire in Rome, the largest European technology fair, organized by the Italian capital’s Chamber of Commerce, funded by the European Union, among other institutions, and to which EL PAÍS was invited. The installation, created by architects Carlo Rati and Italo Rota (authors of their country’s pavilion at Dubai Expo 2020), simulates a journey inside a magnetic cage. “Visitors can feel like they are fusion particles,” summarizes Ratti.
“It’s like a teaser [una pequeña muestra] On a scale where the audience can enter and understand the process. The important thing is to make sure the visitor is actually engaged, so that he or she can understand how we can improve thanks to science. We wanted to tell the story, but also make sure that the viewer could see it, and get into it,” explains the architect.
Another challenge was to develop a message for a heterogeneous audience ranging from high school and high school students to experts and entrepreneurs who have a meeting point in Rome with the technology of the future. “We had to compromise on what could be understood, but without being simplistic,” adds Ratti.
He is also convinced of the future of nuclear fusion, with hundreds of companies and scientists working in all fields, from physics to engineering, including materials experts. Like them, he warns, a nuclear solution will not be unique. There will be no single source of energy. There will be a necessary mixture to remove carbon from the planet. Nuclear will be another one,” he comments.
His vision for an increasingly immediate future is that these diverse facilities, according to the potential of each district, “will be incorporated daily into the cities, into the urban landscape.” And not just in the big capitals, because Ratti believes that “neither Europe nor the United States needs to develop large cities because their population is beginning to decline.” “We are involved in new projects related to urban agriculture. He concludes that making everything more sustainable is at the heart of what architecture must do today.
Italo Rota adds that the basis for this new future, “where technology is very important”, is engagement. It was one of the key elements of the nuclear fusion reactor simulator design: “that people understand the whole process, not just charging an electric car, for example, but where it is produced, how it is distributed and how it is consumed.”
Rota advocates a change in the individual mindset in favor of collective transformations and the combination of the technological and the natural. “There are many elements of life in technology and this is part of life. There must be many solutions for cities and for the body of the population, and a balance must be found”