Credit: Ken Filar
Anyone looking for a bright side in the climate crisis may want to
learn about a potentially revolutionary research project that could
help redefine energy as we know it.
Researchers are gathering at a meeting of the American Physical
Society Division of Plasma Physics in Portland, Oregon, this
week to deliver a kind of state-of-the-science report on fusion
energy, the space-age technology that promises essentially infinite
and carbon-free electrical power.
Scientists from MIT and the privately funded energy company
Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS) are presenting critical updates
on their SPARC project, an effort to manufacture the world’s
first fusion power generator. If successful, the accomplishment
could, like the Wright brothers’ first flights at Kitty Hawk,
Fusion energy is a form of power generation in which energy is
produced through controlled nuclear fusion reactions, which is
essentially the same process that powers the sun and other stars.
Fusion occurs when the nuclei of small atoms bind together (or
fuse) into a single, larger atom, releasing colossal amounts of
energy in the process.
For terrestrial utility purposes, that energy can then be harnessed
to provide the heat required for various kinds of electricity
generation. A fusion energy plant could potentially operate
entirely carbon-free and issue very little waste material, while at
the same time offering ridiculously powerful energy yields.
Theoretically, it would be the ultimate alternative energy source,
deriving power from the same process that lights up the cosmos.
But generating fusion energy on Earth presents some daunting
challenges. The process requires superheating a dense plasma of
subatomic particles inside a fusion device called a tokamak at
extremely high temperatures — like, inside-of-a-star kind of
temperatures, millions of degrees Fahrenheit, which is too intense
for solid materials to contain.
Small fusion reactions, isolated from ordinary matter within
have been produced in labs. But so far, the conditions for net
energy gain haven’t been achieved.
The trick, scientists hope, is to strengthen those magnetic fields.
In the initial three-year phase of their collaboration, SPARC
researchers are trying to build the world’s most powerful
superconducting magnet, which in turn could make possible the
world’s first viable fusion generator by increasing its
effectiveness while reducing its volume and cost.
“By putting the magnet development up front, we think that this
gives you a really solid answer in three years,”
said Dennis Whyte, director of MIT’s Plasma Science and
Fusion Center, in March, “and gives you a great amount of
confidence moving forward that you’re giving yourself the best
possible chance of answering the key question, which is: Can you
make net energy from a magnetically confined plasma?”
The building of magnets at the necessary scale will require a new
class of high-temperature superconductors — and the big news is
that the SPARC has figured this out. Superconductors are materials
that conduct electricity with absolutely no electrical resistance,
so no energy is lost. The catch is that in order for them to do so,
superconductors need to be very cold, maintaining a temperature
below a critical threshold.
The SPARC team says that it has found a way to manufacture
breakthrough high-temperature superconductors in the form of
“tapes” or “ribbons” that will enable fusion at scale. But
they have yet to be incorporated into appropriately sized magnets
and aren’t suited to existing fusion machines.
After creating a superconducting magnet with unprecedented
performance, the next step will be to design and construct the
fusion reactor, which will aim to produce more energy than it
consumes. The MIT and CFS researchers expect that SPARC will be
running by 2025, with a modest output of between 50MW and 100MW,
which is roughly enough to power a small city.
But SPARC is just an experiment. The idea is that its demonstration
will lead to the building of a net-electricity producing fusion
pilot plant and, in turn, a new class of commercial fusion power
Other experimental reactors of this type are already in development
around the world, but with climate change troubles approaching
fast, the SPARC crew is working to dramatically speed up
development on their iteration of the technology.
According to MIT’s online project page,
a successful run of the SPARC reactor “will demonstrate that
fusion energy can be developed in time to provide carbon-free power
to combat climate change.”
The billion-dollar question, of course, is when. MIT scientists
believe that a viable fusion pilot plant could be built and plugged
into the grid in about 15
Source: FS – All – Science – News 2
The space-age alternative energy source may be on the verge of a breakthrough.