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There are no quick fixes to long-term energy challenges. To find solutions, governments and industry benefit from sharing resources and accelerating results. For this reason the IEA enables independent groups of experts - the Energy Technology Initiatives, or ETIs1.

Fusion Materials

Helium bubbles in a steel specimen produced during neutron irradiation.*

Trapping bubbles avoids large voids

Policy context
In magnetic-confinement fusion reactors, the plasma is heated to temperatures of more than 100 million degrees Celsius (°C) to enable fusion of the deuterium and tritium fuel. The main challenges for fusion power science are finding materials that can resist extreme heat radiating from the plasma as well as the effects of irradiation from the neutron bombardment. Other important challenges include identifying those materials that are able to provide safe, reliable and predictable performance, and a long service life at elevated temperatures, with minimum radioactivity in end-of-life components for simplified recycling or disposal. Studying the effects of irradiation in fusion devices presents a particularly difficult challenge, as fully suitable test beds are not available. Materials research is a strategic priority in many IEA member countries. Given the potential of fusion power and the applications to other high-potential energy options, continued efforts in this area will be needed. 

The focus of co-ordinated research under the ETI focusing on fusion materials (FM) is to develop materials for the first wall and blanket of a power plant that will operate under high temperatures and survive the high flux of neutrons and charged particles produced in the plasma chamber. This work also includes developing protocols for measuring material production processes, joining methods and design properties. Research underway includes materials irradiation in fission reactors, ion beams, and computational simulation. The theories are paired with experiments and modelling efforts to represent true fusion conditions and lifetimes. There are nine Contracting Parties, including China, India and Russia.

A unique aspect of the fusion reaction is the substantial production of gases that affect the mechanical and physical properties of the materials.

One such gas, helium, is produced in significant quantities. As helium gas is not soluble, it forms ‘bubbles’ which accumulate to form voids in the materials, affecting its integrity and structure. It is essential to quantify these effects to develop safe and reliable fusion systems. As a result, helium bubbles are a topic of much research worldwide, and a focus of the FM. Currently it is difficult to explore the effects of helium under prototypical conditions due to a lack of appropriate neutron irradiation sources.

The large number of small bubbles and the few, large voids are significant. Growth in the number and size of the voids could cause premature failure of the steel.

Novel experimental techniques combined with multi-scale modelling are being used in the activities of the FM to reveal the micro-level effects of helium on typical structural materials such as the reduced-activation ferritic or martensitic (RAFM) and advanced oxide dispersion strengthened (ODS) steels.

One strategy for managing high levels of helium is to provide many places for bubbles to form so that they do not transform into voids.  This is one reason for the resurgence of interest in ODS steels. The high number of small oxide particles in ODS steels provides many places to ‘trap’ the helium, increasing resistance to unexpected structural failure. 

Photo courtesy of Battelle Memorial Institute. 


Current projects

  • Diagnostics and control insulating ceramics modelling, computer simulation and validation
  • Fundamental studies of irradiation effects
  • Irradiation facilities and post-irradiation tests
  • Reduced activation and advanced ferritic steels
  • Silicon carbide composite materials
  • Tungsten and tungsten alloys
  • Vanadium base alloys

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1.Information or material of the IEA Energy Technology Initiatives, or ETIs (formally organised under the auspices of an Implementing Agreement), including information or material published on this website, does not necessarily represent the views or policies of the IEA Secretariat or of the IEA’s individual Member countries. The IEA does not make any representation or warranty (express or implied) in respect of such information (including as to its completeness, accuracy or non-infringement) and shall not be held liable for any use of, or reliance on, such information.