ARC: The new nuclear fusion reactor causing a stir

11 Aug 2015

Seen by many as nothing but a pipe dream, nuclear fusion energy has been tarred with the same brush as dismissed sciences such as alchemy, but a new nuclear fusion reactor design is claiming it is no fake.

Each time the suggestion that a cost-effective, functional nuclear fusion reactor has been developed is made, the developer’s praise is quickly followed by at least one strongly-worded contrary opinion.

For example, claims by inventor Andrea Rossi that his E-Cat was a working cold fusion reactor the size of a portable generator was followed by criticism ranging from straightforward questioning of his design to claims of outright kookiness.

And yet criticism doesn’t appear to be coming from MIT in the US, where a team from the institute’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center says it may have found the answer to creating a practical, compact tokamak fusion reactor called ARC.

The tokamak reactor concept is where most time is dedicated when it comes to fusion reactor scientific advancements; it uses electromagnetism to confine plasma to within the donut-like torus shape.

The key to its success, the team says, is the recent commercial availability of a specific type of superconductor that contains rare-earth barium copper oxide (REBCO).

Using this, it can produce high-magnetic field coils, which make it much more capable of withstanding the super-hot plasma on a much smaller scale and in a lot cheaper way than with current designs.

“It changes the whole thing,” said Dennis Whyte, director of MIT’s fusion centre and co-author of the research paper written on the findings.

Despite its smaller size, ARC is also seen as having the advantage over similar, larger reactors in that its fusion power core can be removed without needing to dismantle the entire reactor

Nuclear fusion reactor ARC

Illustration of the ARC reactor. Image via MIT ARC team

The team will now use its smaller tokamak reactor design as a means of continuing research on nuclear fusion energy technology, but it is also looking into using it as a potential power source for actual use.

Speaking independently of the research, CEO of Tokamak Energy David Kingham said it shows considerable promise.

“This paper shows a good way to make quicker progress,” he said, “the next step… would be to refine the design and work out more of the engineering details, but already the work should be catching the attention of policy makers, philanthropists and private investors.”

Scientific formulae image via Shutterstock

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic