Fusion power plant illustration
A computer generated sketch of a fusion power plant.​​​​​
​Source: EUROfusion.​

Looking back at 36 years of working towards fusion energy

Hans Nordman is Professor in Electromagnetic field theory in the division of Astronomy and Plasma Physics, in the department of Space, Earth and Environment. His research area is fusion plasma physics, with focus on fusion energy. The research is aimed at understanding and modelling turbulent transport of particles and energy in plasmas, a process which is limiting the performance of a fusion energy device. Hans is retiring after working at Chalmers since 1983. He will continue at the division as professor emeritus.

​​Which has been your greatest scientific experiences during your years of research? 

To be part of a long term and very challenging project that ultimately resulted in a predictive model of turbulent transport in the core region of tokamak plasmas​. The model has been successfully used for analysis and predictions at the world’s largest tokamak JET in the uk. In the 1980's, many scientists thought that the problem of turbulent transport was best dealt with by empirical modelling, not by our approach based on first principles. The project was a team effort initiated by Prof. Jan Weiland and involved many PhD students and postdocs over the years. The project is still active and the latest version of the model is now used to predict the performance of ITER.

What will you miss the most about Chalmers? 

Since I will continue at Chalmers as emeritus, I hope to keep the best parts of the work, which include the stimulating interaction with PhD and master students.

Which challenges do you see for your field in the future?​

For fusion as an energy source, one of the main challenges is related to the interaction of the hot plasma with the material wall surrounding the plasma. The intense radiation from heat and neutrons will determine the wall lifetime, which is expected play a major role in determining the cost of fusion electricity. In theoretical plasma physics, the edge region close to the wall is the most complicated to model due to the presence of impurities from the wall and the relatively large plasma fluctuations and strong turbulence in this region. Here we are quite far from being able to predict the performance from first principles. In addition, there are political challenges since the main road to fusion as an energy source relies on long term international agreements.

What’s next for you personally? Will you keep some connection to your field?

As an emeritus I will continue to interact with PhD and master students in their efforts to understand plasma physics and electromagnetic fields. I may also be involved in specific EU projects on JET and ITER modelling.

​When will we see fusion electricity delivered to the power grid?

With the internationally agreed main road to fusion energy based on the ITER and DEMO devices, fusion electricity delivered to the grid is not foreseen until after 2050. Net fusion energy will be produced by ITER around 2035 on short (minutes) timescales (50 MW in, 500 MW out). Fusion generated electricity delivered to the grid is planned for the following DEMO device. There are also a number of high risk-high gain fusion projects in progress (high risk from the investment point of view) which could potentially lead to a breakthrough. If so, fusion energy could be with us much earlier.

More info:

Fusion Power: 

Nuclei of lighter atoms such as hydrogen collide and fuse together to produce nuclei of heavier atoms such as helium and release vast amounts of energy in the process —this is the essence of fusion. Because the energy is derived from the action of nuclei, fusion is a form of nuclear energy. It maybe considered the opposite of fission, also a form of nuclear energy, which is generated when nuclei of heavy atoms into split into lighter ones. Fusion is the process that powers and drives the production of energy in stars, such as our Sun. 

A​bout ITER:​

ITER is one of the most ambitious energy projects in the world today. In southern France, 35 nations are collaborating to build the world's largest tokamak, a magnetic fusion device that has been designed to prove the feasibility of fusion as a large-scale and carbon-free source of energy based on the same principle that powers our Sun and stars.

More info about DEMO: ​

The DEMOnstration power plant, DEMO, will be ITER's successor. With the transition from ITER to DEMO, fusion will go from a science-driven, lab-based exercise to an industry-driven and technology-driven programme. A key criteria for DEMO is the production of electricity although not at the price and the quantities of commercial power plants. Laying the foundation for DEMO is the objective of the EUROfusion Power Plant Physics & Technology (PPPT) Work Programme.​

Published: Tue 19 Nov 2019.