Indian scientists participate in global nuclear fusion project

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34 countries are collaborating in the 12-billion pound project.

Paris:  23 Indian scientists are part of one of the biggest collaborations between India, France and 32 other countries at Cadarache in southern France, a project to produce electricity from nuclear fusion.

Scientists say electricity from nuclear fusion will be cheaper, cleaner and safer than power from nuclear fission that is used worldwide today. Called ITER, the project is, however, running two years behind schedule at the moment.

Many describe ITER as the world's most challenging scientific project. The biggest challenge: the construction site for a tokamak in which nuclear fusion will be triggered to produce electricity. India is building a cryostat - a giant 10-storey fridge to encase the tokamak where temperatures will equal that of the sun. But India is behind schedule.

Says Indranil Bandopadhyay, a fusion physicist overseeing India's contribution to the ITER project, "We are doing much better than some of the other domestic agencies. Maximum delay we have right now is in the cryostat of about 7 months. But that is overshadowed by delays in other components. Building is 23 months delayed. So the cryostat by seven months doesn't matter that much."

34 countries are collaborating in the 12-billion pound ITER project, raising questions about too many cooks, if not spoiling, then delaying the broth.

French scientist Jean Jacquinot doesn't entirely dismiss the problem. "There are drawbacks of course. The drawback is that there are many interfaces between the cooks as you said and these interfaces are difficult to manage," he says. "But it is also a huge learning process from which dozens of countries will benefit in future."

The first demonstration power plant using nuclear fusion is expected to be ready only in the 2030s.

Mahboob Basha Syed, an engineer with Bhaba Atomic Research Centre who is overseeing the cryostat construction at Cadarache is optimistic. "30 to 40 years from now, we will hopefully see the fusion power plants being commercially available in the world," he says.

 The proof of the pudding, they say, is in the eating and the big question before the ITER fusion project is whether it will ever become commercially viable. Now that is a question it may take 40 years to answer. And many of us are not going to be around to see it.


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