Hoping scientists will find a brilliant alternative to oil and coal? How about a thermonuclear reactor that will hit temperatures ten times hotter than the sun and "could solve the world's energy problems for the next thirty million years," writes Raffi Khatchadourian in the New Yorker. The project—called the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, in France—only needs to overcome rock-bottom morale, constant delays, tensions between engineers around the world, grumbling politicians, and a multi-billion-dollar budget that's never quite high enough. "There is a lot of anxiety here that it is all going to implode," says a physicist.
Scientists have long dreamed of such a reactor to harness power by nuclear fusion, a cleaner process than fission that produces almost no radioactive waste. First proposed in 1985, ITER relies on an oft-squabbling, international cadre of experts who vie for the spotlight and struggle to convince politicians that it's still viable. The US has yanked and recommitted funding over the years, and a family-owned company in San Diego is building the all-important solenoid—in this case, a 20-mile-long cable wrapped around a metal column—to harness the plant's plasma in a "magnetic bottle" (because no physical material can contain it). But engineering challenges remain, and parts made around the world may or may not all fit together. If they do, Earth could have a new energy source in about 10 years. "I think ITER is an absolute necessity for the world—otherwise I wouldn't put up with the frustrations," says a top ITER official. Click for the full article, or see a Science Insider report on a damning assessment of ITER's management. (Read more nuclear fusion stories.)