The decades-old dream of many scientists and science fiction writers may come true at some point over the next decade. Researchers at MIT and a startup spun out of MIT are working on a nuclear fusion experiment, which they are fairly certain will achieve its goal of creating a hot burning plasma to produce for the first time ever fusion energy more than the energy consumed to generate that fusion energy.
Nuclear fusion has long been considered the answer to zero-emission by-product-free energy generation. However, no one has cracked the nuclear fusion code yet because of the challenges associated with the environment in which the process could take place.
Fusion is the natural process that heats the Sun and all other stars, in which a huge amount of energy is produced by the fusion of light atoms, such as those in hydrogen, into heavier elements like helium.
Although this type of energy production has been long recognized as totally carbon- and by-product-free and the source atoms in hydrogen are abundant on Earth, replicating fusion energy generation on Earth has been a challenge. That’s because this fusion needs to take place at extremely high temperatures that create hot plasma, and because researchers have struggled to obtain more energy from those plasmas than the energy input to run them.
MIT and the startup Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS) are currently working to develop a next-generation fusion research experiment, called SPARC, as a precursor to a practical, emissions-free power plant. MIT and CFS researchers believe the experiment will work as planned to create and confine a plasma that produces net fusion energy, they said in seven studies published in the Journal of Plasma Physics this week.
SPARC is a compact, high-field, DT burning tokamak, currently under design by a team from MIT and CFS. Phase 2 of the experiment will begin in 2021 and will last four years. It will also include the construction and commissioning of the device, the team says.
The work is progressing smoothly and on track to begin construction around June 2021, Martin Greenwald, deputy director of MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center, and one of the project’s lead scientists said.
This timeline could mean that the team could start experimenting with SPARC to create hot plasma and net fusion energy as early as 2025.
According to Greenwald, once the SPARC machine is up and running, key information can be gained that “will help pave the way to commercial, power-producing fusion devices, whose fuel — the hydrogen isotopes deuterium and tritium — can be made available in virtually limitless supplies,” MIT says.
“One of the conclusions is that things are still looking on-track. We believe it’s going to work,” Greenwald said.
Bob Mumgaard, chief executive at CFS, which has energy firms Equinor and Eni as investors, among others, said, commenting on the work and the papers on SPARC:
“These are concrete public predictions that when we build SPARC, the machine will produce net energy and even high gain fusion from the plasma. That is a necessary condition to build a fusion power plant for which the world has been waiting decades.”
“The combination of established plasma physics, new innovative magnets, and reduced scale opens new possibilities for commercial fusion energy in time to make a difference for climate change,” Mumgaard noted.
The SPARC experiment could be a step toward commercial nuclear fusion energy. But it is not the only such venture—scientists have been trying for decades to create the elusive net energy gain from fusion.
The ITER Project – designed to demonstrate the scientific and technological feasibility of fusion power in collaboration among Europe, China, India, Japan, South Korea, Russia, and the US – is ready for machine assembly. The project, which will be the world’s largest experimental fusion facility, targets to achieve first plasma in 2025.
NASA is working on overcoming the temperature challenge in nuclear fusion and has recently unveiled a new method that could create fusion at room temperatures in the confines of a metal lattice.
Scientists still have a long way to go to make the nuclear fusion breakthrough, but recent advances could shorten the timeline toward commercial carbon-free and radioactive-free nuclear fusion energy.