Inside the Joint European Torus tokamak reactor.
Energy rules everything around us: It's at the core of the interplay between our economy and environment, and is a major influencer in geopolitics. That's why so many dream of clean nuclear power, whether it be via a thorium-fueled molten salt reactor or cold fusion. Fairly limitless, relatively cheap energy would fundamentally change the way our world works. South Korea has is the latest country to bet on fusion reactors, joining up with the US Energy Department's Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory to drop a cool billion on fusion research.
The goal is to get a demonstration plant up and running by the 2030s. According to a Nature report you ought to read:
South Korea is already developing the Korea Superconducting Tokamak Advanced Research (K-STAR) project and contributing to ITER, the €15-billion (US$20-billion) experimental reactor being built in Cadarache, France, under the auspices of an international collaboration. K-DEMO is intended to be the next step toward commercial reactors and would be the first plant to actually contribute power to an electric grid.
“It is a very smart strategy to take advantage of the experience gained in constructing ITER and to immediately proceed to construct a fusion power plant like K-DEMO,” says Stephen Dean, president of Fusion Power Associates, an advocacy group in Gaithersburg, Maryland.
K-DEMO will serve as prototype for the development of commercial fusion reactors. According to the PPPL, it will generate “some 1 billion watts of power for several weeks on end”, a much greater output than ITER's goal of producing 500 million watts for 500 seconds by the late 2020s.
As noted in Nature, it's a sign of serious commitment from South Korea to put the won down on such a big project during the middle of the financial crisis, but the potential payoff is huge. Of course, the challenge is still massive. Creating a fusion reaction and sustaining it long enough to gain net-positive energy, and then putting that energy to use, is a monumental task, and ITER has suffered numerous delays, although new management has helped.
Still, when we're talking fusion, we always come back to the payoff: Forget squabbling over solar, wind, and coal, fusion promises a future where we don't worry about energy any more. That might sound a bit grandiose, but that's the scale we're discussing, and it's why South Korea is following other countries in spending a lot of money on a concept that as of now still feels rather impossible. Let's hope that it's not.