The Art Hidden In The World’s Largest Nuclear Fusion Reactor
Forbes, by Eva Amsen Contributor
Read this article online, click here
Once the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) starts its first experiments in a few years, the world will be watching to find out if nuclear fusion can fulfil its promise to become the planet’s next big sustainable energy source. And from inside the very structure of the reactor itself, an artwork by sculptor Christine Corday will be observing the action up close.
ITER is an international collaboration between 35 countries to build a nuclear fusion reactor in the South of France, with the goal of investigating whether it’s possible to draw on nuclear fusion as a future global energy source. ITER itself will not provide any consumers with energy, but the research project models the scale that a future commercial energy-providing reactor would need to be. That is why they’re currently building the world’s largest tokamak, a device that uses a magnetic field to generate nuclear fusion.
Nuclear fusion is very different from nuclear fission — the process that current nuclear reactors use to produce energy. It’s the exact opposite. Fission splits a larger atomic nucleus into smaller ones, while fusion combines two smaller atoms into a larger one. The main concerns surrounding existing nuclear fission reactors (the risk of fall-out and the disposal of long-lived radioactive waste) do not apply to nuclear fusion. Waste is minimal, and meltdown is impossible due to the nature of the reaction, which is difficult to get started in the first place.
The key to a nuclear fusion reaction is to generate incredibly high temperatures of 150 million degrees Celcius. This creates a plasma in which hydrogen isotopes (deuterium and tritium) can fuse to produce helium and a neutron. The initial heating uses up energy, but the reaction itself can produce energy and ITER is designed to be the first nuclear fusion reactor that creates net energy.
“It could be a real breakthrough, able to substitute fossil fuels,” says Bernard Bigot, the Director-General of the ITER project. “We know that we cannot rely on fossil fuels forever,” he adds. “We need to move away from current consumption, so this is exactly why we urgently need an alternate option.”
Fusion could be that alternate option, and ITER is the experiment to find out if it would work on a large scale.
The same nuclear fusion process also takes place in stars, so in a way, ITER is building a “star” on Earth. That poetic notion caught the attention of artist Christine Corday. “When I learned that there was a project that was realising a star on Earth, that 35 countries over the last three decades have been devoted to this unprecedented pulse of plasma, I was wholly magnetised.”
Corday has a background in cosmology and did an internship at NASA, but eventually chose a career in art. Science keeps coming back in her work, though, either as inspiration or through the process of creating. At the time when she first heard about ITER, Corday had an exhibition at LACMA of sculptures she had created with extremely high temperatures, matching those of the surface of the sun.
ITER, with its high temperatures and its “star on Earth” premise, seemed the perfect match for Corday, so she got in touch with them, and started a discussion about finding ways to involve art in the project in some way.
“From my point of view this joint meeting of science and art on the ITER site is very natural,” says Bigot. He sees both science and art as ways to connect people and advance culture.
After several meetings and proposals, in which both ITER and Corday shared their ideas and intentions, the choice of artwork was clear. It would take the form of one of many large M30 bolts that holds the structure together. This had the symbolism of being supportive — resembling the connection of art and science itself — while at the same time being humble and anonymous, identical to all the other bolts.
When the bolt changed from being just a bolt to a piece of art, Corday stripped it of its name. It’s no longer an M30 bolt — it’s now “Sans Titre”.
“It has the same measurements, the same alloy, all the same specifications. It went through all the same rigorous testing,” explains Corday.
To the casual observer, “Sans Titre” is indistinguishable from the other M30 bolts in the structure. But there will not be any casual observers. The work is located right at the top of the tokamak, hidden from view.
If all goes according to plan, ITER will achieve first plasma in 2025 and “Sans Titre” will be quietly observing it all. Bigot is excited about this idea. “The bolt will be looking down into the fusion process”, he says. “It will be a direct witness when we achieve the first burning plasma.”
In total, 35 countries are creating the different parts of the ITER structure — and now there is one part of it, just one unnamed bolt, representing art’s connection with science. For Corday, that is the main intention of the work, to involve art as a 36th contributor. But she also recognizes the incredible human story behind the building of ITER.
“There’s thousands of engineers, thousands of scientists, thousands of builders,” she says. “It’s truly extraordinary to think that we are the witnessing generation of a star being built on Earth.”