Aerospace Engineers Help Build Nuclear Fusion Machine

In order to build the world’s largest nuclear fusion reactor, the team at France’s International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) brought in an engineering firm with an expertise you might not expect. Spanish company CASA Espacio specializes in aerospace engineering, with more than 20 years of experience building components that have been used for rockets, satellites, and the International Space Station. It turns out that space travel and nuclear energy both share similar challenges—they require machines that can withstand the Sun’s extremely high temperatures. In fact, this is the the main reason why nuclear fusion hasn’t yet lived up to its potential as a clean, safe, and abundant energy source. The sun is a natural fusion reactor, but in order for fusion to occur on Earth, you need to produce and contain temperatures that are six times hotter than the sun’s core.

So, to build the rings that support the powerful magnetic coils inside ITER, engineers borrowed techniques from building launcher and satellite components. Casa Espacio’s Head of Commercial and Strategy, Jose Guillamon explains:

Forces inside ITER present similar challenges to space. We can’t use traditional materials like metal, which expand and contract with temperature and conduct electricity. We have to make a special composite material which is durable and lightweight, non-conductive and never changes shape.

Pre-compression_ringsThe composite is made by embedding carbon fibers in resin to create a material that is often used for aerospace parts, because it is lightweight and strong enough to hold its shape even after surviving rocket launches and more than 15 years in the harsh environment of space. Now, Casa Espacio’s engineers are using a similar technique to build gigantic compression rings that will hold ITER’s powerful magnets in place. The project aims to prove that nuclear fusion is a viable energy option for the future. A separate group at Germany’s Max Plank Institute for Plasma Physics achieved a new milestone with a different type of fusion reactor that generated hydrogen plasma in February, 2016. ITER’s giant reactor is expected to be built by 2019, but it could take another thirty years of development before a commercial version will generate electricity.

Source: ESA

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