Arthur J. Villasanta – Fourth Estate Contributor
Boston, MA, United States (4E) – U.S. scientists said they’re on the verge of a major breakthrough that will make fusion power a commercially viable source of cheap, green and safe power that will forever solve the world’s hunger for energy.
Scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS), a newly former start-up based in Cambridge, said they’ve developed a new type of superconductor that can be used to produce small, powerful magnets, a key component in fusion reactors. The magnets create a magnetic field to hold the fusion reaction in place without the plasma touching anything solid, helping solving the meltdown problem.
The study published in the journal Nature also said this development might make fusion energy commercially viable is as little as 15 years from now.
Nuclear fusion produces temperatures hotter than the center of the sun. This means the reaction can’t be contained by any known metal. The solution is to enclose the plasma produced from nuclear fusion in a magnetic field. This, in turn, means special magnets are needed to accomplish this.
These electromagnets, however, demand tremendous amounts of power to generate a magnetic field. The new magnets created by MIT and CFS, however, are smaller and require less energy. This means their system produces more energy than it consumes. This is the first time this goal has been achieved.
Once the new superconducting electromagnets are developed by researchers at MIT and CFS — expected to occur within three years — MIT and CFS will design and build a compact and powerful fusion experiment, called SPARC, using those magnets. The experiment will be used for what is expected to be a final round of research enabling design of the world’s first commercial power-producing fusion plants.
SPARC is designed to produce about 100 MW of heat. While it will not turn that heat into electricity, it will produce, in pulses of about 10 seconds, as much power as is used by a small city. That output will be more than twice the power used to heat the plasma, achieving the ultimate technical milestone: positive net energy from fusion.
This demonstration might establish that a new power plant of about twice SPARC’s diameter, capable of producing commercially viable net power output, could go ahead toward final design and construction.
CFS will join with MIT to carry out rapid, staged research leading to a new generation of fusion experiments and power plants based on advances in high-temperature superconductors. This work was made possible by decades of federal government funding for basic research.
The new effort aims to build a compact device, which is SPARC, capable of generating 100 million watts, or 100 megawatts (MW), of fusion power. This device will demonstrate key technical milestones needed to ultimately achieve a full-scale prototype of a fusion power plant that could set the world on a path to low-carbon energy.
If widely disseminated, such fusion power plants could meet a substantial fraction of the world’s growing energy needs while drastically curbing the greenhouse gas emissions that are causing global climate change.
CFS has announced that it’s has attracted an investment of $50 million in support of this effort from the Italian energy company Eni. CFS will fund fusion research at MIT as part of this collaboration, with an ultimate goal of rapidly commercializing fusion energy and establishing a new industry. In addition, CFS continues to seek the support of additional investors.
“This is an important historical moment,” said MIT President L. Rafael Reif. “Advances in superconducting magnets have put fusion energy potentially within reach, offering the prospect of a safe, carbon-free energy future. As humanity confronts the rising risks of climate disruption, I am thrilled that MIT is joining with industrial allies, both longstanding and new, to run full-speed toward this transformative vision for our shared future on Earth.”
CFS CEO Robert Mumgaard said everyone agrees on the eventual impact and the commercial potential of fusion power, “but then the question is: How do you get there? We get there by leveraging the science that’s already developed, collaborating with the right partners, and tackling the problems step by step.”
The project was conceived by researchers from MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center, led by PSFC Director Dennis Whyte, Deputy Director Martin Greenwald, and a team that grew to include representatives from across MIT, involving disciplines from engineering to physics to architecture to economics. The core PSFC team included Mumgaard, Dan Brunner PhD ’13, and Brandon Sorbom PhD ’17 — all now leading CFS — as well as Zach Hartwig PhD ’14, now an assistant professor of nuclear science and engineering at MIT.
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