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Nuclear fusion within 15 years? MIT scientists hope so...

12/03/2018
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Fusion power has long been a dream of engineers, scientists, politicians and policymakers alike. A potentially inexhaustible and zero-carbon source of energy would have a transformative impact upon the entire world. However, to-date, workable fusion has remained in the realm of speculation.

Now though, the development of fusion power could be on a faster track toward realisation, thanks to a new collaboration between MIT and private company Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS). CFS and MIT will now jointly carry out rapid, staged research leading to a new generation of fusion experiments and power plants based on advances in high-temperature superconductors- with the ultimate aim of producing a working pilot plant within 15 years.
Visualisation of the proposed SPARC tokamak experiment.
(Visualisation of the proposed SPARC tokamak experiment. Image via MIT News).

Bob Mumgaard, CEO of Commonwealth Fusion Systems, which has now attracted $50 million in support of this effort from the Italian energy company Eni, said:

“The aspiration is to have a working power plant in time to combat climate change. We think we have the science, speed and scale to put carbon-free fusion power on the grid in 15 years.”

MIT President L. Rafael Reif, said of the plans:

“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.”

“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.”
The team behind the new collaboration between MIT and CFS.
(Left to right: Martin Greenwald, deputy director of the MIT Plasma Science and Fusion Center (PSFC); Dan Brunner, chief technology officer of Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS); Zach Hartwig, assistant professor of nuclear science and engineering; Brandon Sorbom, chief science officer of CFS; Bob Mumgaard, chief executive officer of CFS; and Dennis Whyte, director of PSFC. Image via MIT News.)

Whilst the promise of fusion is huge- it could meet a significant amount of the planet’s energy needs- every fusion experiment to-date has operated on an energy deficit, making it essentially useless from an electricity generation viewpoint.

This new effort by MIT and CFS however, aims to build a compact device capable of generating 100 million watts, or 100 megawatts (MW), 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.

CFS will support MIT research over the next three years through investments by Eni and others. This work will aim to develop the world’s most powerful large-bore superconducting electromagnets- the key component that will enable construction of a much more compact version of a fusion device called a tokamak. The magnets, based on a superconducting material that has only recently become available commercially, will produce a magnetic field four times as strong as that employed in any existing fusion experiment, enabling a more than tenfold increase in the power produced by a tokamak of a given size.

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Nuclear fusion within 15 years? MIT scientists hope so... - Time to read 3 min
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