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The endless race for fusion energy pits a giant reactor in France against two upstarts in North America.

In the still and silent scrublands of Provence, France, near a 1,000-year-old castle that overlooks two rivers, 3,500 scientists from countries that represent over half of the world’s population are about to start work on ITER, a device as grand as its ambitions: a $15 billion, aircraft-carrier-size reactor built to withstand a fire that will burn at 100 million degrees and prove, finally, whether fusion, the energy that powers the sun and stars, can be harnessed.

Tucked away in the back corner of an old mattress warehouse in this Vancouver suburb sits a silver sphere not much larger than a human head. Like some mad inventor’s futuristic Chia pet, it sprouts numerous wires that lead to banks of capacitors, batteries capable of delivering their charge at lightning speed.