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Realising the vision of fusion

A significant breakthrough was recently reached in generating “fusion” nuclear energy. The National Ignition Facility (NIF) in California, U.S., could generate, for the first time, more energy by the fusing of the nuclei of atoms than was put in to attain the reaction.

NIF is a part of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, which is primarily funded by the U.S. Department of Energy. Findings of the experiments (carried out between September 2013-January 2014) were published online in the science journal Nature on 12 February 2014. [1]

The NIF used a technology called “inertial confinement” (which is a cage of lasers) to contain the reaction of the fusion in hot plasma, a pellet of atoms the size of a pinhead. Generating energy in this manner, which in effect replicates the fusion process of the Sun, is potentially a source of cheap energy. Unlike fossil fuels and nuclear fission, it can be abundant and free of pollution, radioactive waste or greenhouse gases. It has the potential to replace energy sources such as coal and even petrol, once the technology is made commercial.

That milestone, however, is some years away. Conservative estimates hinge on the timeline of the world’s largest nuclear fusion reactor being constructed in the south of France, called the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER). It is a collaboration between the European Union, India, Japan, China, Russia, South Korea and the U.S. The estimated cost is $20 billion, with the EU funding 45% and the other six (including India) contributing 9.1% each. [2] The first plasma for this reactor is expected in 2020, and it will go on-stream by 2027 with a target generating 500 megawatts. [3]

Fusion energy was the dream of Homi Bhabha, one of India’s foremost scientists, and the founder of India’s nuclear programme. To realise this goal, Bhabha built the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) in 1945 in Mumbai, his home city. India’s (and Asia’s) first wholly indigenised nuclear reactor ‘Apsara’, based on fission, was built at TIFR. Using enriched uranium as fuel, ‘Apsara’ went critical on 4 August 1954.

The growing chasm in India’s energy needs had become evident even before Independence, when undivided India lost its oilfields in Myanmar to the Japanese invasion of 1942, and the oilfields at Attock (Khaur) in Pakistan to Partition in 1947. Although this was crude and not coal (66% of India’s electricity comes from coal-based thermal power plants), it translated to starting with energy deficiency after Independence. [4] Today, the country is a net importer of both crude and coal.

It was imperative for a modernising India look at an unconventional source to power the country into the next century. Homi Bhabha, Jawaharwal Nehru and J. R. D. Tata began their visionary work in 1942, knowing that Independence was round the corner. Another key player was Shanti Bhatnagar, a colloidal chemist from Lahore, who was secretary at the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) and was also at the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) in its early years.

At the United Nations Conference on the Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy in Geneva in 1955, Bhabha said: “…a method will be found for liberating fusion energy in a controlled manner within the next two decades. When that happens, the energy problems of the world will truly have been solved forever, for the fuel will be as plentiful as the heavy hydrogen in the oceans.” [5]

By this time, TIFR was already an intellectual hub for high-energy particle physics and mathematics; it was inseparable from the AEC (started in 1948) and the DAE (set up in 1954) in the early years, because they all shared the same head. By 1954, India had already joined the nuclear club and successfully set up ‘Apsara’, the first nuclear reactor, at the Atomic Energy Establishment in Trombay (called the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre after the Homi Bhabha’s death in 1966).

Despite the loss of Homi Bhabha, India’s nuclear vision was not lost because of a string of highly-accomplished scientists (most of them collaborators of Bhabha) who helmed these key institutes; this included M. G. K Menon, Vikram Sarabhai, Homi Sethna and Raja Ramanna.

The prospect of abundant clean energy ensured that achieving nuclear fusion under controlled conditions remained a goal for TIFR and its co-institutes – and they made a lot of progress in fabricating indigenous fission-based nuclear technology and developing a fuel cycle that exploits locally available thorium deposits.

The Institute for Plasma Research in Ahmedabad, funded by the DAE, continues to work on Bhabha’s dream of hydrogen fusion. This institute is part of the ITER project based in France. The technology being developed here is different from the work being done at the NIF in the U.S.; it uses magnetic confinement (electric coils) to contain fusion from hot plasma. But the NIF breakthrough is significant. Its first of generating more energy than was put in to achieve fusion will help ITER to jump to the next step.

Achieving “ignition” (continuous fusion like the Sun) is the next step for both the NIF and ITER. It may take a few years before the technology is stabilised. Till then, India is moving ahead with nuclear power to meet 25% of the country’s electricity needs from this source by 2050. [6]

Meanwhile, Bhabha’s “fusion dream” has been realised. The quest to emulate the Sun and unleash an inexhaustible source of energy has taken a big step forward. As Bhabha said at Geneva, “Energy is the great prime mover… it makes possible life itself.”

Sifra Lentin is a Mumbai-based writer and historian, and the Mumbai History Fellow at Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations.

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[1] Ball, P. (2014). ‘Laser fusion experiment extracts net energy from fuel’. Nature. Retrieved from www.nature.com/news/laser-fusion-experiment-extracts-net-energy-from-fuel.1.14710

[2] International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor. (n.d.). Frequently asked questions: Do we really know how much ITER will cost and How is ITER financed? Retrieved from http://www.iter.org/faq

[3] International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor. (n.d.). Frequently asked questions: When will ITER be operational? Retrieved from http://www.iter.org/faq and International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), (n.d.). Facts and figures. Retrieved from http://www.iter.org/factsfigures

[4] Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation, Government of India, Central Statistics Office. (2013). Energy statistics 2013. Retrieved from http://mospi.nic.in/mospi_new/upload/Energy_Statistics_2013.pdf?status=1&menu_id=216

[5] Chowdhury, I., & Dasgupta, A. (2010). A Masterful Spirit: Homi J. Bhabha (1909-1966). Penguin Books India.

[6] World Nuclear Association. (2014). Nuclear power in India. Retrieved from http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/country-Profiles/Countries-G-N/India/