A group of physicists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has recently accomplished a feat that could pave the way for practical carbon-free energy. The achievement took three years to complete. It is the result of intensive research and design work, say project leaders. For the first time, researchers have built a large, high-temperature superconducting electromagnet that can reach a field strength of 20 tesla – the most powerful magnetic field ever created. This removed a major obstacle in generating clean fusion power, making it possible to build a fusion plant that can produce more energy than it consumes.
The fusion energy, which powers the Sun, involves two small atoms that fuse together to form a larger one. No solid material can withstand the temperatures necessary for this. So what’s needed is a way to capture and contain something as hot as the sun’s energy source, suspending it so that it doesn’t come into contact with anything solid. Powerful electromagnetic fields like the one created by the MIT researchers could do the job, according to the researchers.
These electromagnets can allow the construction of simpler and more compact fusion reactors. The technology could lead to the construction of cheap, carbon-free power plants, an important factor in reducing the effects of climate change, said project leaders at MIT and startup Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS).
Maria Zuber, vice president of research at MIT, said that fusion, in many ways, is the ultimate clean energy source. The fuel for fusion energy comes from water – an almost limitless resource. Also, the amount of energy available is “really revolutionary”.
Demonstration fusion in a laboratory has been pursued by several researchers with limited success. The development of the new magnet was one of the biggest obstacles. Now that the technology has been successfully demonstrated, the MIT-CFS collaboration is on track to build the world’s first fusion device that can produce more energy than it consumes. This device, called SPARC, should be ready by 2025.
Dennis Whyte, Director, MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center, said there are many challenges to making fusion happen. But once the technology is proven, Whyte wants it to be a fundamentally new and “inexhaustible” energy source.