Sunny with some plasma clouds


An international traveling party is always fun. An Italian tells juicy details about the strange behavior of Berlusconi, a Russian girl tells how she evades the tight press regime and an Irishman talks about Irish ghost neighborhoods caused by the real estate crisis. It’s nice to look for differences and similarities between countries. At nuclear fusion project ITER, all these international conversations take place every day. But here it is not only small talk. Tough agreements are made on an international level to build the most complex machine in the world. An almost impossible task.

‘The position of the sun turns bougainvillea into firework.’ It is a phrase in a song about southern France by the Dutch pop band Bløf. I often think about it when I’m in Aix-en-Provence, the city where I studied eight years ago. I still visit regularly because it stole my heart. The sun does something to you here. Not only to tan or burn your legs. The bright and omnipresent sunshine here brings up the most beautiful colors in buildings, streets, flowers and trees.

Sun in a box
It is therefore a very appropriate place to put the sun in a box. Or, as Pierre-Giles de Gennes, Nobel Laureate in Physics, said: ‘We say we are putting the sun in a box. A lovely idea. Too bad we do not know how to make that box.’ At a 45 minutes drive north of Aix, a complex machine that simulates the processes occurring on the sun is being built. This process is called fusion energy. In contrast with nuclear energy, atoms are joined together instead of split. With only a negligible amount of nuclear waste, which remains radioactive for ‘only’ one hundred years. This machine should eventually produce more energy than the 50 megawatts it needs. 500 megawatts of energy should be delivered by the enormous power released during fusion. It is possible, according to the scientists working on this project called ITER. One of the scientists assured us that there are no ‘show stoppers’ anymore. At least on a technical level. The international cooperation and political will required for such a project, that’s a whole other story.

As many as seven countries (China, India, Japan, Korea, Russia, USA) and the EU are united in the project. All countries are building – in their own country – a piece of the machine. Ultimately, it all comes together in France. The assembly of all the components (there seem to be more than a million) gives the scientists already many headaches. The tolerances are minimal. When a part is a few millimeters larger than agreed, it no longer fits. And I’m not even mentioning the bizarre temperatures that the materials have to undergo. In the middle of the plasma (in which fusion occurs), the temperature is about one hundred million degrees. The superconducting magnets are -269 degrees and the walls around the plasma may ‘only’ be a few hundred degrees. No wonder the demands for the materials are strict and the manufacturing process is thoroughly monitored. However, mistakes still occur. For example, the Italians suddenly came up with another welding method for the vacuum chamber. And in Japan someone had left a towel on a long coil. When the coil was rolled up, the towel destroyed a part of it.

Communication is essential in order to correct these mistakes. To prevent these errors in an early stage, ITER has set up a video conferencing system that – to my surprise – works really smoothly. We had a conference call with members from all over the world. Five cameos showed fusion researchers from Spain, USA, India, China and Russia. Questions and answers and even a bit of discussion was possible, without any delay or disruption in the connection. It might make such a complex international project a bit easier. But different interpretations and cultures will always remain. For example, the Chinese video caller spoke a strange kind of ‘Chinglish’. Later on, an ITER employee told me that he was regularly frustrated by the Chinese:  ‘They do no effort to speak good English.’ The project will cost billions of dollars and has been considerably delayed. But given the ambitious goal – to put the sun in a box – this is not that surprising. For me it’s already quite something that they can put all participants in a conference call. So I expect a lot from it. Until then I’m going to enjoy the southern French sun. Time to shut down my laptop and settle down with a pastis on a terrace on Place Richelme.