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Project Miniature Sun

1. To cope with increasing electricity demand in the wake of global warming world’s scientists are trying to create a miniature Sun on earth.

2. A plasma-based fusion reactor known as the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) project, is being built.

3. India is one of the seven partners in this global collaboration.

What are the objectives of the project?

1. Produce 500 MW of fusion power while only consuming 50 MW of input for about 8 minutes at a time.

2. Test key science and engineering issues in preparation of fusion power plants that will function continuously.

3. Testing tritium breeding, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen will be a critical component in developing future power plants.

4. Build the world’s biggest tokamak and to demonstrate the control of the plasma and the fusion reactions with negligible consequences to the environment.

(Tokamak is a cylindrical shaped, magnetic fusion device in which the fusion reaction takes place.)

Who are all involved in the project?

1. It is joint collaboration of the European Union, India, China, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the USA.

2. These countries together hold 50% of the world’s population and account for about 85% of the global GDP.

3. The EU is contributing about 45% of the cost with the other nations contributing approximately 9% each.

4. The ITER project was officially initiated in 1988. It is being built in France.

5. The intellectual properties generated by the project will be shared by the seven members.

India’s Contribution

1. India officially became part of ITER in 2005.

2. India has committed to contribute 9% of the project cost.

3. India is also providing the world’s largest refrigerator known as cryostat to house the reactor.

4. Other key components developed by India are cooling water systems, vessel in-wall shielding blocks, radiofrequency heating sources, and diagnostic neutral beam system.

5. Around 100 Indian scientists are working on this project.

When is the project expected to be completed? 

1. The construction of the ITER Tokamak complex stated in 2013.

2. The construction of the facility is expected to be completed in 2025.

3. Initial plasma experiments will begin in 2025.

4. So far 66% of the project is completed and operations are expected to start in 2035.

How is energy produced?

1. Nuclear fusion takes place when multiple atoms combine together to form a more massive atom.

2. This atom is likely smaller in mass than the sum of masses of the original atoms. The difference in mass is released in the form of energy based on the Einstein’s formula.

3. E = mc^2. Here E denotes energy, m for mass and c for the speed of light.

4. In this project, two heavier atoms of hydrogen, deuterium, will be taken and combined together which will result in helium and energy release.

5. The energy produced inside the tokamak through fusion of atoms is absorbed as heat in the walls of the vessel.

6. Just like a conventional power plant, a fusion power plant will use this heat to produce steam and then electricity by the way of turbines and generators.

7. The more the fusion reaction is, the more the production of fusion energy.

Why is it called Miniature Sun?

1. The Sun is composed of gases, mainly of hydrogen gas (around 75%), helium (25%) and elements like oxygen, iron, neon, nitrogen and silicon.

2. Energy is produced at the core of the Sun essentially through a massive fusion reaction. The intense heat and pressure at the core fuses hydrogen atoms together and releases energy.

3. A similar process is mimicked in the tokamak. The deuterium converted into plasma is inserted in the tokamak and heated up by sending pluses of the laser so that it gets fused.

4. To prevent the plasma from interacting with the wall of the vessel and melting it, a huge magnet force is created to suspend the plasma in space.

5. Sun’s massive gravitational force creates the condition for fusion but on earth, they are harder to achieve.

6. So, fusion fuel must be heated to extreme temperature (about 50 million degrees Celsius) and must be kept stable under intense pressure to allow nuclei to fuse.

7. Once enough fusion takes place for the process to become self-sustaining, ignition can be achieved, and there will be net energy yield.

Where lies the Challenges?

1. Making the cost of fusion electricity economically competitive.

2. Handling safety issues like the meltdown of nuclear reactor, harmful effects on human health and effective disposal of radioactive waste.

3. Building a structure, strong enough to contain plasma and exhaust systems to withstand a high level of energy.

4. Building a system for breeding, recovering and storing the fuel.

Which are other similar researches? 

1. Chinese scientist built the first fusion reactor in 2018. It was first to reach a temperature of 100 million degrees Celsius.

2. The UK has the Mega Amp Spherical Tokamak fusion project. It is focusing on smaller reactors.

3. MIT of US working with Commonwealth Fusion Systems to develop SPARC. It aims to build the small fusion reactors that can be built into factories and ship of assembly onsite.

4. SPARC is expected to start producing energy by 2025.