MIT is poised to make a massive investment into the future of nuclear fusion power. This move is significant because fusion power is potentially inexhaustible and produces zero carbon emissions. Fusion power could quite literally change the world as we know it today.
MIT has announced a new collaboration with a private company called Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS) that will see $50 million poured into the creation of a working fusion power plant.
MIT and CFS want to perform rapid, staged research that will lead to a new generation of fusion experiments and ultimately power plants based on advancement in high-temperature superconductors. The work will be built on decades of federal government funding that has paid for the basic research.
The $50 million that CFS and MIT will be using for this latest research mostly comes from an Italian energy company called Eni, among others. "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."
"Everyone agrees on the eventual impact and the commercial potential of fusion power, but then the question is: How do you get there?" adds Commonwealth Fusion Systems CEO Robert Mumgaard SM ’15,
Fusion is what powers the sun and stars. It uses light elements like hydrogen, fusing them together to form heavier elements, like helium, releasing tons of energy in the process. Superconducting magnets are key to fusion because the process requires temperatures that are so extreme no solid material can withstand them. The incredibly powerful magnets hold hot plasma in place to keep it from contacting any part of the chamber. It's a potent form of clean, renewable energy.
MIT and CFS have a goal of creating a compact device that can generate 100 million watts of fusion power. If successful with creating the small-scale fusion power plant, the tech would be used to build a full-scale plant capable of putting the world on a path of cheap, low-carbon energy, cutting cost and greenhouse gas emissions in the process.
CFS plans to support more than $30 million of MIT research over the next three years with investments by Eni and others. The research will aim to develop the most powerful large-bore superconducting electromagnets in the world -- a key component needed for the fusion process. The magnets will use a superconducting material that has only recently become commercially available. The researchers say the creation of these magnets is the phase that carries the greatest uncertainty with it. Therefore, developing the critical magnets will be the initial three-year phase of the project.
The scientists involved are confident they can make these magnets, because others have already built similar magnets using the same material for different purposes, which actually produced twice the magnetic field strength that will be required for the MIT fusion reactor. Those other magnets were small, but validate the basic feasibility of the concept, notes the researcher.
The researchers hope to create a functioning fusion power plant in the next 15 years. Big promises were made in the fusion world before, Lockheed Martin made some noise in 2014, for example, with a promise of a working fusion power plant in the next decade.