A team of scientists from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), in conjunction with Commonwealth Fusion Systems (an American company aiming to build a compact fusion power plant based on the ARC fusion reactor tokamak concept), intend to collaboratively create the world’s first profitable fusion reactor.
The ARC fusion reactor is a theoretical design for a compact fusion reactor developed by the MIT Plasma Science and Fusion Centre (PSFC). The design aims to achieve an engineering gain of three (to produce three times the electricity required to operate the machine) while being about half the diameter of the ITER reactor in addition to being cheaper to construct.
The Italian energy company ‘Eni’ who donated $50 million in support of this project, said: “The aspiration is to have a working power plan in time to combat climate change”. Climate change has been linked to many types of recent extreme weather, including hurricanes and floods which then lead to the spread of waterborne illnesses such as eczema, conjunctivitis, and ear, nose and throat infections.
Furthermore, climate change has been linked to the increasing number of wildfires which have resulted in huge amounts of smoke leading to burning eyes, heart and lung diseases and even death.
Nuclear fusion promises a combustion-free source of energy which produces no greenhouse gases or hazardous waste. It involves bringing together lighter elements such as hydrogen to form heavier elements, releasing energy.
This process occurs, using gravity, in the Sun where the temperature of the core reaches the millions of degrees Celsius needed for fusion to take place. This is simply too hot for any solid to withstand, hence fusion researchers use plasma held in place by magnetic fields.
To date, every nuclear reactor has operated on an energy deficit, however the MIT team believe they can create a promising reactor using new superconducting materials. Previously this was believed to be achievable in around 30 years’ time, but the team has reduced this time by half. MIT researchers have been exploring a variety of materials trying to find the right combination of elements to improve the magnets surrounding the plasma.
Following trying Niobium-titanium and Niobium-tin superconductors, at present they are experimenting with a steel tape coated with a compound called yttrium-barium-copper oxide (YBCO). This specific combination will produce a magnetic field four times as strong as those in any existing fusion experiment.
The compact and powerful fusion experiment, called SPARC, is designed to produce about 100 MW of heat. SPARC will produce, in pulses of about 10 seconds, as much power as is used by a small city. That output would be over double the power used to heat the plasma in the first place, thereby achieving a positive net energy. Further research into this area could reduce the waiting time even further, maybe to ten years?
Eva, Consultant, Leyton UK
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