ANU partner with China on nuclear fusion technology for power supply

Canberra Times May 9 2017

ANU has handed over the keys to its $35 million nuclear fusion stellarator as part of a technology exchange with China aimed at creating a new viable base-load power source by 2050.

Many nations, scrambling to find a solution to the energy crisis, view nuclear fusion as a sustainable solution.

Director of the Australian Plasma Fusion Research Facility at ANU Dr Cormac Corr, right, standing with University of South China Professor Zhao Li Hong beside the 25 tonne H1 Heliac stellarator. Photo: Sitthixay Ditthavong

If nuclear fusion, which powers our sun and all the stars in the universe, can be harnessed it has the potential to provide zero-emission and relatively cheap power to the world’s grids into the future.

ANU Australian Plasma Fusion Research Facility director Dr Cormac Corr said a memorandum of understanding signed with University of South China in April underpinned the exchange.

The two devices that are most likely to make commercial fusion energy viable are either the stellarator, designed by US scientists, or the Tokamak, invented in Russia.

Sending the 25-tonne H1 Heliac stellarator to China from Canberra was a strategic move by both nations, Dr Corr said.

“China has a huge energy crisis with its population so they are hedging bets, if you like,” he said.

“They have four Tokamaks. They don’t have a stellarator. They want to develop those capabilities just in case the stellarator is the fusion device of the future.”

Director of the Australian Plasma Fusion Research Facility at ANU Dr Cormac Corr with the glowing MAGPIE II – a machine used to test plasma interactions. Photo: Sitthixay Ditthavong

In September 2016, Australia became the first non-member state to enter a formal collaborative agreement with ITER – set to be the world’s largest Tokamak fusion reactor and the first to create net power.

China, the European Union, India, Korea, Russia, Japan and the United States are jointly funding the construction of the $30 billion nuclear fusion demonstration facility in France.

Dr Cormac Corr said partnership with China served both nation’s strategic energy interests. Photo: Sitthixay Ditthavong

Australia is trying to position itself as a major player in the ITER project by providing the technology to see volatile plasma, which is otherwise invisible when it reaches temperatures of 150 million degrees inside the reactor.

Father of the technology, ANU professor John Howard, said the plasma diagnostic instrument acted as a “speed camera” which was vital to monitor the enormous heat and power fluxes in the reactor’s exhaust region.

He and fellow fusion science experts are lobbying, through the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation, for a $30 million federal program over the next three decades to further plasma fusion capabilities.

“We want to get an instrument that Australia owns on ITER in prime core space, so we are not relegated to a side show,” Professor Howard said.

“There is the potential we could lose this opportunity. If we don’t grasp the nettle and take this on ourselves, some other country will.”

Dr Corr said as part of the deal China would supply ANU with power generating parts for the ANU’s Magnetised Plasma Interaction Experiments, dubbed MAGPIE I and II.

If plasma diagnostics were the speed camera, MAGPIE was like a crash test dummy simulation, he said.

“In a fusion reactor the materials are going to experience hell,” he said. “We are reproducing those conditions in these devices. We are trying to push them to the extreme of what they can withstand and see what happens.”

Research conducted at the ANU facility would feed into Australia’s materials and monitoring advice to the ITER project.

University of South China counterparts were at ANU on Monday to celebrate 25 years of stellarator research in Canberra and the final plasma run through the system before the impressive H1 Heliac was packed up to be shipped to China later this year.