Germany Hails Landmark Achievement In Fusion Energy
The Wendelstein 7-X won’t be winning any awards for catchy name of the year, but the massive new German prototype fusion reactor does represent one of the biggest advances in fusion power in decades. The device also exemplifies what might be the start of a nascent trend; European leadership in energy research and experimentation.
The Wendelstein 7-X is the world’s largest stellarator, a massively complex fusion reactor that was inaugurated by Angela Merkel in a recent ceremony. The reactor is a testing prototype at this stage rather than a commercial energy generation source, but it marks the first time an alternative to traditional fusion power approaches has been tried. The current state of the art in fusion power is a device called a Tokamak. Tokamaks are easier to build than stellarators, but despite decades of support for projects like ITER that rely on that design, no economical fusion reactor has been built yet. The Wendelstein 7-X offers an alternative.
In testing of Tokamak designs so far, no one has yet been able to get a fusion reactor that produces more power than it consumes. It’s unclear thus far if the Wendelstein 7-X will change this, but it might. The problem in fusion power is keeping the reactor matter contained long enough to make significant energy generation a realistic possibility. The Wendelstein 7-X showed promising ability to do just that in very early stage testing. That testing will continue for the next few years up until the German engineering team starts using deuterium to demonstrate the potential for scalable power production.
Yet for all of the justified excitement over the world’s largest stellarator, there are also serious challenges. First, building a commercial-sized stellarator would be an engineering and project management challenge virtually unparalleled in human history. The project would cost tens of billions and take years to achieve seriously testing the commitment of Germany and any other backing nations at a time when political realities shift almost constantly. Building any fusion reactor is very difficult as ITER shows, but a scaled up stellarator would be even more difficult because of its complex design and myriad component parts.
Beyond its economic implications though, the Wendelstein 7-X might also be another sign of the evolving nature of technology research around the world. The United States has been the leader in research and technology for much of the last century with most major commercial breakthroughs happening in the U.S. from about the time of the mass-produced automobile and lightbulb onwards.
Advancing new research and technology requires a commitment to innovation and a national willingness to take risks though. For more than 100 years that view certainly was exemplified by the U.S., while Europe largely ceded its role in the advancement of mankind due in part to two world wars and the threat of Russian dominance hanging over half the continent for half a century.
With the Cold War now over, and Europe trying to move towards a more cohesive and stable political union that would integrate the continent, it is possible that Europe as a whole may be starting to bring big ideas that could lead to big innovations to the forefront again. The Wendelstein 7-X is one example of this. ITER, though admittedly multinational in backing, is a second primarily European big idea.
Another example of this type of risky thought leadership is France’s recent foray into building solar powered roads. Not all of these ideas will work of course, and many will likely be costly failures. But it only takes one or two big ideas working out to change the future of mankind and set the stage for future economic revolutions that could be worth trillions.