L&T flags off giant, sophisticated component for international fusion project

M Ramesh Chennai | Updated on June 30, 2020 Published on June 30, 2020

L&T on Tuesday ceremoniously flagged off the final component of a gigantic ‘cryostat’ — a monstrously large ‘refrigerator’ — for a global, mega-science project to build a fusion reactor in southern France.

The third piece of this cryostat, the top lid, was manufactured by L&T Heavy Engineering at Hazira, Gujarat and is now ready to be shipped to France. The lower and middle parts of the equipment were made and shipped to France last year.

The cryostat, which helps control the temperature of the core of the fusion reactor, is a 3,850-tonne stainless steel machine standing 30 meters wide and 30 meters tall, or three-fourth the height of the India Gate monument in Delhi or four meters taller than Gateway of India in Mumbai. It is a highly sophisticated equipment, featuring a vacuum chamber and replete with superconducting magnets. L&T won the project to make the cryostat “against stiff competition” in 2012. India is represented in the 35-country ‘ITER Project’ by ITER India, which is part of the Department of Atomic Energy. The ITER project wants to build a 500-MW fusion reactor, as a sort of a prototype.

If it succeeds, it could pave the way for practically unlimited supply of cheap, green energy.

Fission vs fusion

The nuclear power stations of the world, including 22 of India’s, are all ‘fission reactors’, which produce energy by splitting the Uranium-235 nucleus. In contrast, a fusion reactor is one in which (heat) energy is produced by fusing two atoms. The ‘easiest’ atoms to fuse are the atoms of isotopes of Hydrogen — Deuterium and Tritium — to form a Helium atom. This happens all the time in the sun and keeps the king of the sky hot.

To fuse two atoms into one, a lot of energy is needed — around 150 million degrees Celsius. Scientists have even mastered creating and handling such temperatures — by using cryostats — but the problem has been that fusion reactors, called ‘tokamaks’, have consumed more energy than they produce. For instance, a 16-MW European tokomak needs 24 MW of input energy.

In contrast, the ITER expects to produce ten times ‘net energy’, or 500 MW with input of 50 MW.

ITER tokamak

The ITER tokamak is being assembled at Cadarache, France. In December 2025, the giant reaction — an assembly of ten million parts — will start producing ‘plasma’, an extremely hot, gooey sort of Deuterium and Tritium nucleii, but one would have to wait for 10 more years for production of heat energy. And then some more years to convert the heat into electricity. The cryostat is a critical piece of equipment of this leviathan reactor.

At the inauguration function, L&T’s Chairman Emeritus, AM Naik, recalled his own scepticism when the company bagged the project, considering it to be too risky.

The Director-General of ITER and a nuclear scientist of international repute, Bernard Bigot, said that L&T was an “absolutely core partner” in the mission. He observed that L&T built the machine without a single accident.

L&T’s CEO and MD, SN Subrahmanyan, pointed out that the company had been part of all of India’s strategic projects, from Pokhran to Moon and Mars missions.

VK Saraswat, Member, NITI Aayog and former head of DRDO, said the government was “totally committed” to the ITER project and looked forward for more role in it. He observed that apart from L&T, many Indian software firms were contributing to the ITER experiment.

Published on June 30, 2020
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