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article imageMontreal filmmaker's fusion documentary — 'Let There be Light'

By Karen Graham     Oct 24, 2017 in Technology
In France, scientists are building a machine already decades in the making: TOKAMAK - an artificial star that could provide millions of years of clean energy. Are scientists about to crack nuclear fusion, or chasing an almost century-old delusion?
Nuclear fusion has long been considered the holy grail of limitless energy production and since the 1940s, scientists have been looking for ways to initiate and control fusion reactions to produce useful energy.
And while it took only three years between the first nuclear fission detonation in 1945 and a nuclear power plant coming online to produce electricity, it has been close to 70 years since the first fusion detonation in 1952, and we have seemingly come no further in our quest.
Filmmakers MILA AUNG-THWIN   and VAN ROYKO
Filmmakers MILA AUNG-THWIN, and VAN ROYKO
Bergen International Film Festival
"Let There be Light" documentary
Two Montreal, Canada documentary filmmakers, Mila Aung-Thwin and Van Ryoko, decided to explore nuclear fusion research, jumping into the frustrating, though fascinating realm of science and technology behind fusion energy and how we are trying to put a "star in a box."
READ MORE: The ‘cold standard’: Would nuclear fusion be safer?
The documentary explains in layman's terminology the history and promise of fusion and offers first-hand accounts of fusion’s technical, financial and political challenges. The two filmmakers have tried to paint the promises of the future in a world that already realizes that fossil fuels will be our undoing.
Eighteen  D -shaped toroidal field magnets will surround the torus-shaped vacuum vessel to confine t...
Eighteen "D"-shaped toroidal field magnets will surround the torus-shaped vacuum vessel to confine the plasma particles. Measuring 17 metres in height, 9 metres in width, and weighing in at 310 tonnes each, these coils rank among the largest components of the ITER machine.
ITER
“Let There Be Light” recently premiered at the South By South West Film Festival and will be released more widely in the coming weeks. “I wanted to make a movie about the future of energy, what is even more out there than solar and wind,” says Aung-Thwin.
And co-director Aung-Thwin remains optimistic about the science and technology behind nuclear fusion, even after talking with scientists about some of the pressing problems they are encountering over funding. He points out, “It’s the money, and that’s really the politics about which I’m less optimistic."
"Basically, it’s about how much money is put into it for it to be solved. We know how to do it — it’s just we don’t know how to make it cheap and long enough. It’s kind of like an airplane that’s 90 percent flying.”
READ MORE: Google 'Optometrist Algorithm' brings us closer to fusion power
Besides funding, and it can be enormously expensive, the documentary sort of gently brings another point to bear in the film - Why do we have to keep focused on solving how to create nuclear fusion? The thought right now is that it could take generations to figure the whole thing out.
The Tokamak and its plant systems housed in their concrete home. An estimated one million parts will...
The Tokamak and its plant systems housed in their concrete home. An estimated one million parts will be assembled in the machine alone. Image - April 16, 2016.
ITER
"I met these scientists who were doing just that,” Aung-Thwin said. “They had the attitude that they were building something like a huge cathedral and were aware that it wouldn’t be finished until long after they were dead. But they were still doing it. How many people have you ever met who work like that?”
The best-kept secret in the world
The documentary focuses on the current massive fusion reactor being constructed in Southern France, with an international collaboration of governments, and $14 Billion dollars (and counting) in capital. It is called the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) and is set to 'turn on' in 2025.
For those of you who enjoy a bit of trivia, the planning for the ITER was kicked off with a handshake between President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985. Many people don't realize this, but the ITER project is probably the most ambitious international undertaking since the International Space Station project.
US President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachov at the first Summit in Gen...
US President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachov at the first Summit in Geneva, Switzerland.
Ronald Reagan Presidential Library photo id C31982-11
READ MORE: Tokamak Energy joins with Atkins to get fusion energy on the grid
The ITER project includes the nations in the European Union, the United States, Russia, China, India, Japan, and South Korea. ITER's timeline for completion and "first plasma" is an iffy proposition, due primarily to funding. The price tag is already about $18 billion, but even that amount may be a guess.
Another worry is President Trump and his distaste for renewable energy and keeping the country's money close to home. America has been contributing $400 million annually to the project, but with the new budget cuts, who knows? According to The Energy Collective, the president's budget request for ITER is only $63 million, however, as of now, the Senate does not have ITER funding in its budget at all.
Guided tour of ITER and other private fusion companies
American physicist, Mark Henderson, is one of the major guides in the film. He worked for 16 years on the TCV Tokamak reactor in Lausanne, Switzerland before going to France to work on the ITER Tokamak. He is in charge of the microwave system that heats the plasma.
The International Space Station is captured in its flight over ITER on 8 December 2016 (see the whit...
The International Space Station is captured in its flight over ITER on 8 December 2016 (see the white streak to the left of the crane in the centre of the image). The astronauts on board—one French, three Russians, two Americans—probably didn't know that 400 km below, their compatriots are working together on another of humanity's grand challenges.
ITER
A number of private fusion companies are also highlighted in the film, including General Fusion, a private startup founded by Dr. Michel Laberge, a Canadian physicist who also is an inventor, designer, and scientific project leader.
READ MORE: Loops of liquid lithium used to clean tritium in fusion reactions
“Fusion right now is somewhat like airplanes right before the Wright Brothers flew for the first time,” says Laberge. “Once someone shows how it can be done, excitement will go up and then investment will pour in, but right now there is not much excitement in fusion."
Be sure to watch the trailer for "Let There be Light." You will then get a first-hand view of the real magnitude of the ITER project. If it was supposed to be a well-kept secret, it's about time all the world knows about it and the importance of achieving positive results that will ensure our energy future.
More about Nuclear fusion, Documentary, Let there be light, Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, Montreal Filmmakers
 
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