Scientists and researchers have been trying to crack the fusion energy puzzle for decades.
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 in the water on Earth, replicating fusion energy generation on Earth has long 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.
Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) may have found a way to fast track the development of fusion energy, and a working pilot plant could be less than 15 years away. The project has attracted one of Europe’s largest oil and gas companies—Italy’s Eni—that has committed funding for research and development.
MIT researchers may have found a way to produce net energy from fusion by the use of high-temperature superconducting electromagnets.
MIT and a new startup company created by former MIT researchers and students, Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS), have attracted Eni, which will invest US$50 million to buy a stake in CFS and will support the company in developing the first commercial power plant producing energy by fusion.
“Fusion is the true energy source of the future, as it is completely sustainable, does not release emissions or long-term waste, and is potentially inexhaustible. It is a goal that we are increasingly determined to reach quickly,” Eni’s chief executive Claudio Descalzi said in statement last Friday.
Eni and MIT have been collaborating for years in joint research and development projects, including in solar technologies, carbon capture and storage, and wearables to improve workplace safety in the oil and gas industry.
Now Eni is betting on fusion energy developments with CFS that has also attracted U.S. investment funds.
“With that funding, CFS will work with MIT scientists to develop the superconducting magnets that are key to advancing this pathway to fusion energy,” Maria T. Zuber, vice president for research at MIT, wrote in an op-ed in The Boston Globe.
These magnets are made from a newly available superconducting material—a steel tape coated with a compound called yttrium-barium-copper oxide (YBCO), MIT says.
Researchers at MIT and CFS are expected to develop those magnets within three years, and then they will design and build a compact fusion experiment, called SPARC, using the magnets.
The experiment aims to demonstrate for the first time, control of a fusion plasma that produces more energy than it consumes. With SPARC, CFS seeks to demonstrate fusion energy by the mid-2020s, Zuber wrote in her article.
“The MIT design uses established science for the plasma confinement, and thus puts fusion power plants within reach on a faster time-scale than previously thought possible,” she noted.
Through SPARC, researchers will aim to demonstrate a working pilot plant
within 15 years.
MIT is not the only organization looking for a breakthrough in fusion energy. The ITER multinational project in southern France that involves researchers from the United States, the European Union, China, and Russia, among others, has been experimenting in fusion energy for decades. It aims to achieve first plasma by December 2025, and to begin deuterium-tritium operation by 2035. In December 2017, ITER said that 50 percent of the “total construction work scope through First Plasma” was now complete.
SPARC will complement existing approaches to achieving fusion, MIT’s Zuber said, adding that “fusion is far too challenging for its pursuit to be limited to a single experimental design.”
The Wendelstein 7-X fusion device at Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics (IPP) in Greifswald, Germany, and the UK’s Culham Centre for Fusion Energy are also working to find the solution to commercially available fusion energy.
Private startups in North America have also been trying to solve the fusion energy challenges.
Vancouver-based General Fusion said in December 2017 that it achieved first plasma in a new machine, which it called “a milestone for private fusion venture.” Jeff Bezos’ Bezos Expeditions is part of a global syndicate that funds General Fusion.
California-based TAE Technologies, Inc (formerly Tri Alpha Energy), said last month that its proprietary beam-driven field-reversed configuration (FRC) plasma generator, Norman, “surpassed a new technical milestone, bringing the company closer to the reality of commercial fusion power.”
Nearly two dozen private ventures—backed by a total of more than US$1 billion in private investment—are looking to make the fusion energy breakthrough, General Fusion’s CEO Chris Mowry told GeekWire last month.
“I feel like this is the SpaceX moment for fusion,” Mowry said.
Investors and researchers believe that fusion energy is possible, but the challenge is developing a commercially viable way to produce net energy and take this reaction from a small-scale lab experiment to a big-scale power plant.