Tuesday, January 8, 2008

China Taking 10% Stake in International Fusion Power Program

By William Patalon IIIExecutive EditorMoney Morning/The Money Map Report

As part of a broad strategy to meet its soaring energy needs, China will take a 10% stake in a multi-billion-dollar international fusion-research project, China Radio International reported.

The project, called ITER, is designed to demonstrate both the scientific and technical feasibility of fusion power for peaceful commercial use. Fusion power is the same energy that's generated by stars in outer space - including our solar system's sun - as well as by the hydrogen bomb.

"The project aims to find a shortcut to solve our energy shortage," Luo Delong, deputy director of the ITER China Office, said at the Oriental Science and Technology Forum held in Shanghai over the weekend. A report on the forum was featured on the English-language service of CRI, China's state-run shortwave radio service.

The partners in the project are the European Union, Japan, China, the Republic of Korea, India, the Russian Federation and the United States. The ITER device will be built in Europe, at Cadarache, in the South of France.

Cadarache is a nuclear-energy research center that was created by France's Commissariat à l'Énergie Atomique in 1959, when French President Charles de Gaulle launched France's atomic energy program.

According to Delong, China research scientists will supervise the production of various project components. These scientists will then escort them to Cadarache.

China will inject about $137.5 million [about 1 billion Chinese yuan] into the project, an amount that will equal roughly 10% of the total ITER investment, officials said.

The Internationalization of Fusion Research

The aim of ITER is to show fusion can be used to generate electrical power and do the preparation work to build and operate an electricity-producing plant. That means that a key project objective is to develop the technologies which would make a viable fusion-power reactor possible.

ITER scientists intend to test a number of key technologies, including the heating, control, diagnostic and remote maintenance that will be needed for the operation of a commercial fusion power plant.

Fusion is much more alluring than conventional nuclear fission, the energy process used at most of the world's current nuclear power plants. Fusion is capable of producing dozens of times more energy than fission. And fusion is also cheaper. Fission can only be caused by uranium. However, the resource to trigger fusion can be found in ordinary substances from the sea, experts say.

The ITER device is based on the tokamak-reactor concept, in which a hot gas is confined in a toroidal [doughnut]-shaped vessel that uses a magnetic field to confine a super-hot plasma. The gas is heated to more than 100 million degrees, and will produce 500 Megawatts of fusion power, the ITER organization says.

The tokamak concept is an interesting example of how scientific advances transcend international boundaries.

Soviet physicists first devised the concept in the 1950s. But the actual Tokamak Fusion Test Reactor, or TFTR, was constructed at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory in New Jersey starting in 1980. That test reactor never achieved "breakeven" status - a point in which usuable fusion power generated by the process meets or exceeds the amount of energy needed to create the reaction in the first place. But it operated for nearly 15 years - until 1997 - and was said to contribute a great deal to general fusion know-how by leading to major advances in energy density and plasma confinement time.

According to ITER, the design finally achieved a level of detail that allowed for accurate cost estimates in 2001.

A Powerful Price

According to the ITER Web site, the total construction cost of the ITER fusion device is projected at about $7.4 billion over 10 years, with another $7.4 billion earmarked for its 20-year operation period.

The ITER organization owns the ITER device and is responsible for all aspects of the project, such as licensing procedures, hardware procurements and operation.

According to Zhang Jie, a fusion-power scientist of Jiao Tong University, fusion research is under way at several Shanghai universities, including Fudan and Donghua. China intends to boost its focus on fusion research to enhance the country's international position with respect to that discipline.

China's Appetite for Energy

As China's economy continues to grow at a pace three to six times faster than its more-mature U.S. counterpart, that Asian nation is grappling with major power shortages, as well as suffocating pollution concerns.To fuel its growth, China has relied heavily on coal-fired power plants to power its rapid industrial expansion. Between 2003 and 2006, worldwide coal consumption increased as much as it did in the 23 years prior. China accounted for 90% of that increase and used 2.5 billion tons of coal in 2006 - more than the next-three-highest-consuming nations combined. The country is home to more than 2,000 coal-fired power plants, and a new one goes into operation every week.Those plants produce massive quantities of hazardous carbon emissions. Earlier this year, China surpassed the United States as the world's top emitter of greenhouse gases.

The result: China's smog-filled skies have resulted in acid rain, desertification, dust storms and declining health. Healthcare costs alone account for an estimated 4% of China's GDP.

The nation's climate-change program has set a target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 950 million tons over the next two years. Late last year, at the United Nations climate conference in Bali, Xie Zhenhua, vice chairman of the National Development and Reform Commission, said China's investment in renewable energy would reach $20 billion in the New Year. Fusion is a longer-term solution, but offers promise if it can be fully developed.

Nuclear fusion occurs naturally in the sun and other stars. Researchers have achieved artificial fusion, but it's yet to be completely controlled or made efficient enough to commercialize. It was first conceived in the early 1930s, and research into fusion for military purposes began as part of the Manhattan Project in the 1940s. That didn't succeed until 1952.

Civilian fusion research also began in earnest in the 1950s.

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