March 22. 2023. 6:56

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Fusion energy, an industry perspective

The possibility of having an unlimited amount of clean energy is no longer a dream: nuclear fusion could be just a step away from industrial application. Producing energy from fusion, the reaction that powers the Sun and the other stars, is part of an ambitious technology development plan that is becoming increasingly stronger thanks to magnetic confinement, a solution that is drawing ever closer.

Reproducing on Earth the mechanism that powers the stars has been a holy grail for humanity: for decades, it was always going to be the next big thing. The reaction – called fusion – produces safe, clean and virtually endless energy, making it a potential breakthrough in the energy transition, and a radical disruption for the global energy system.

While over the years scientists and engineers – also thanks to some key European Initiatives – have made noticeable progress in developing the technology, now the urgency of the fight against climate change is giving new momentum to the endeavour. Crucially, it is attracting private capital into new projects, focused on making a business opportunity out of the technology. This means developing – as soon as possible – reactors that can produce more energy than the one they consume and deliver electricity to the grid.

The great advantage of magnetic confinement fusion energy is that it does not emit greenhouse gases. This makes it a potentially breakthrough energy source for the energy transition. It is also virtually inexhaustible, because it uses as fuel two isotopes of hydrogen: deuterium, which is obtained from seawater, and tritium, which can be produced through a physical reaction with lithium.

According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), fusion could generate around four million times more energy per kilogram of fuel than burning coal.

As its name suggests, magnetic confinement technology uses powerful magnetic fields to isolate plasma (a gas consisting of a mixture of deuterium and tritium). The fusion of two hydrogen nuclei releases an enormous amount of energy. Since gravitational force on Earth is far less strong than on the Sun and the other stars, the process requires bringing these hydrogen isotopes to very high temperatures (over 100 million degrees) in order for them to merge and release their energy.

Fusion energy is a completely different technology from nuclear fission, which powers current nuclear power plants: in the fission process, energy is produced by the “breaking” of a heavy atom (e.g. uranium) after impacting a neutron. During fusion, the opposite process takes place: once the right conditions are met, the repulsive forces can be overcome and they can merge into a helium nucleus, releasing energy in the process. All of this will be possible thanks to technologies that can ensure an inherently safe process, which extinguishes itself spontaneously.

[This large-bore, full-scale high-temperature superconducting magnet designed and built by Commonwealth Fusion Systems and MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center (PSFC) has demonstrated a record-breaking 20 tesla magnetic field. It is the strongest fusion magnet in the world. Credit: Gretchen Ertl, CFS/MIT-PSFC, 2021]

Eni, as an integrated energy company, believes that a neutral approach to technology is the key to delivering on the energy transition. Each sector of the economy will need specific technologies to reduce its emissions – from solar and wind to wave energy to produce electricity, from biofuels for mobility to carbon capture to decarbonize heavy industry.

Breakthrough technologies like energy from fusion have the potential of bringing a step change in the transition to clean energy. That’s why we have become a strategic investor in Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS), a spin-out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), with which we have also just signed a cooperation agreement that will help us scale up our technological contribution.

CFS is a concrete plan with a deadline: the first CFS power plant based on magnetic confinement fusion will be ready by the beginning of the next decade. This is a revolutionary achievement, which will provide the industrial sector with a technology that can deliver large volumes of energy without generating any greenhouse gas emissions and it can be produced safely, cleanly and virtually inexhaustibly.

As early as September 2021, CFS accomplished a major milestone with the successful test of a magnet with HTS (High Temperature Superconductors) technology: it is the most powerful magnet of its kind in the world, which will contribute to achieving net fusion energy, for the first time ever, in a future demonstration Magnetic Fusion plant. SPARC. It is currently being built and will be operational by 2025. In turn, SPARC will serve as a test bed for the development of ARC, the first industrial-scale power plant capable of feeding electricity into the grid, which is expected to become operational in the early 2030s.

Besides investing in CFS, Eni collaborates with MIT in the LIFT programme (Laboratory for Innovation in Fusion Technology) to speed up research into solutions concerning materials, superconducting technology, physics and plasma control. Eni also takes part in ENEA’s DTT (Divertor Tokamak Test facility) project for the design and building of a Tokamak machine for testing components that can withstand the vast amount of heat generated inside the fusion chamber.

The project is part of the EuroFusion programme. Our group also collaborates with leading research centres, which have long been part of the Eni network, such as CNR and the main universities in this field. These include building the Eni-CNR Joint Research Centre in Gela. In addition to co-operating with important research institutions, Eni has made available to researchers its Green Data Center which, thanks to its great computing power, makes it possible to use highly complex mathematical models to describe for example the physics of plasma and simulate its behaviour.

The approach of Eni is unique in this field and is aimed at providing its values, expertise and industrial approach to accelerate the path that will see fusion energy fed into the grid as soon as possible.

Further Reading

Eni — Magnetic confinement fusion: the energy of tomorrow imitates stars

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