An international research team believes that, with a new approach, nuclear fusion could be only 15 years away from being hooked up to a national energy grid.
While US president Donald Trump’s plan to pull funding from a massive international nuclear fusion research project threatens to derail years of research, a new project between MIT researchers and private partners suggests a radically different approach.
If successful, the team estimates that it could be able to bring nuclear fusion power to the grid in as little as 15 years, twice as fast as some analysts had thought.
If a sustained and stable nuclear fusion power reactor is achieved, it would usher in a new age of near-limitless, cheap and clean energy.
According to The Guardian, this latest project will use a new class of high-temperature superconductors as part of an experiment called Sparc.
The superconducting material consists of steel tape coated with a compound called yttrium barium copper oxide, allowing researchers to create powerful magnets but at a scale smaller than in existing reactors.
As a nuclear fusion reactor tries to replicate the process of the sun on a much smaller scale, these magnets are crucial to holding the plasma in place to prevent it from coming into contact with the surrounding chamber, as well as reducing the amount of energy needed to be put into the reactor.
Compared with the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) project based in France – the largest fusion project of its kind – the Sparc is just a fraction of its volume.
Positive net energy
If it proves to be successful, Sparc will generate approximately 100MW of heat, thereby creating as much power in 10-second pulses as would be needed in a small city.
If this is achieved, the researcher team from MIT – with financial and technical assistance from Commonwealth Fusion Systems in the US and Italian energy company Eni – believes its system could demonstrate one of the holy grails of nuclear fusion technology: positive net energy from fusion, meaning you get more energy from what you put in.
However, the immense heat produced by the experimental reactor will not be used to create electricity just yet.
MIT’s vice-president for research, Prof Maria Zuber, believes the research being undertaken could be a major weapon in the fight to reverse climate change.
“At the heart of today’s news is a big idea: a credible, viable plan to achieve net positive energy for fusion,” she said.
“If we succeed, the world’s energy systems will be transformed. We’re extremely excited about this.”