Image via Gretchen Ertl, CFS/MIT-PSFC
A research team led by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS) have just made a breakthrough in fusion energy with a high-temperature electromagnet capable of producing a field strength of 20 tesla.
This is the most powerful magnetic field of its kind ever created on Earth.
This new superconductor material takes on the form of a flat tape, akin to ribbon. But its simple shape can be deceiving; it’s capable of producing the same results as a low-temperature device almost 40 times larger in volume.
Fusion is an alternate source of energy, which is described as “the ultimate clean energy source” by MIT’s vice president for research, Maria Zuber. This is due to its origins: the fuel used to create fusion energy is derived from water, which is an almost infinite resource on Earth.
“It’s an inexhaustible, carbon-free source of energy that you can deploy anywhere and at any time,” describes Dennis Whyte, director of MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center. “It’s really a fundamentally new energy source.”
Simply described, it comes down to the “merger” of two small atoms which results in a single large one. This is the same process that gives the Sun its energy, which is indicative of how huge the amounts of energy released are. Then, this can be harvested.
In order to capture the Sun’s million-degree temperature, “intense” magnetic fields need to be deployed in order to contain the proton-electron mixture, or plasma; hence the invention of the team’s ultra-powerful magnetic field.
This boundary-breaking technology indicates the possibility of the production of a device called SPARC. This will be the world’s first fusion device that can “create and confine a plasma that produces more energy than it consumes,” according to the University’s press release.
After SPARC will come ARC: a power plant built around this science. If the first SPARC succeeds, it will show that a commercial-scale fusion power plant is possible. Conceptualized in 2015, the team aims to be able to complete two of SPARC to comprise the full-sized plant.
Although this is a major scientific achievement, and SPARC will undoubtedly be all that and more, Zuber explains that isn’t really the reason the team is trying to develop this. “None of us are trying to win trophies at this point,” she says. “We’re trying to keep the planet livable.”