Fusion power … nearer than we think?

March 11, 2018 | By | Reply More

Progress toward fusion power — an inexhaustible and zero-carbon source of energy — could be about to take an interesting leap forward.

This is due to a collaboration between MIT and a new private company, Commonwealth Fusion Systems. 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 — work made possible by decades of federal government funding for basic research.

Fusion, the process that powers the sun and stars, involves light elements, such as hydrogen, smashing together to form heavier elements, such as helium — releasing prodigious amounts of energy in the process. This process produces net energy only at extreme temperatures of hundreds of millions of degrees Celsius, too hot for any solid material to withstand.

To get around that, fusion researchers use magnetic fields to hold in place the hot plasma — a kind of gaseous soup of subatomic particles — keeping it from coming into contact with any part of the donut-shaped chamber.

Fusion power ... nearer than we think?

Fusion power … nearer than we think?

The new effort aims to build a compact device capable of generating 100 million watts, or 100 megawatts, of fusion power. This device will, if all goes according to plan, 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.

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.

Once the superconducting electromagnets are developed by researchers at MIT and CFS — expected to occur within three years — MIT and CFS will design and build a 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 would be more than twice the power used to heat the plasma, achieving the ultimate technical milestone: positive net energy from fusion.

“This is an important historical moment: Advances in superconducting magnets have put fusion energy potentially within reach, offering the prospect of a safe, carbon-free energy future,” says MIT President L. Rafael Reif. “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.”


Category: Science


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Colonel Frog is a long time science fiction and fantasy fan. He loves reading novels in the field, and he also enjoys watching movies (as well as reading lots of other genre books).

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