There’s THE Holy Grail – the one of Arthurian and biblical legend – and then there are other holy grails that initiate quests in many fields to find them and change the course of history, save the world, prove you’re right or that everyone else is wrong, etc. One such grail in the energy field is nuclear fusion and fusion power – creating the power of the Sun by fusing two atoms together and safely containing and distributing the released energy without melting and destroying the power plant and life as we know it in the process. Einstein said it was possible and now the brains at MIT have made a “watershed” development that brings us closer to replacing fossil fuels with clean fusion energy.
“Fusion in a lot of ways is the ultimate clean energy source. The fuel used to create fusion energy comes from water, and the Earth is full of water — it’s a nearly unlimited resource. We just have to figure out how to utilize it.”
Maria Zuber, MIT’s vice president for research and E. A. Griswold Professor of Geophysics, laid out the challenge and MIT project engineers and the startup company Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS) have joined forces to make SPARC — a compact, high-field, net fusion energy device using new high-field, high-temperature superconducting (HTS) magnets that would be the first to demonstrate net fusion energy gain and move one step closer to being its holy grail.
Make sense so far?
The use of high-temperature superconductors to create a super-strong magnetic field in a small space was made possible by a new kind of superconducting material and conceived in a nuclear engineering class taught by Dennis Whyte, director of MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center. that led to the design of the ARC (Amager Resource Center) power plant in Copenhagen which is touted as the “cleanest and most efficient waste-to-energy facility in the world.” SPARC is designed to be about half the size of ARC, and the design was validated one year ago in a series of scientific papers. Combining the design with the superconducting magnets was the breakthrough.
“We built a first-of-a-kind, superconducting magnet. It required a lot of work to create unique manufacturing processes and equipment. As a result, we are now well-prepared to ramp-up for SPARC production.”
Joy Dunn, head of operations at CFS, says the new magnet was gradually powered up until reaching a 20 tesla magnetic field — the highest field strength ever for a high-temperature superconducting fusion magnet. The magnet is composed of 16 plates stacked together, each one of which by itself would be the most powerful high-temperature superconducting magnet in the world. the MIT/CFS team is now ready to build SPARC – an actual, fusion energy generating power plant. Maria Zuber, who laid down the challenge, best describes the importance of this breakthrough.
“I think we’re going to look back and think about how we got there, and I think the demonstration of the magnet technology, for me, is the time when I believed that, wow, we can really do this.”
Monty Python may want to start writing songs for the new nuclear fusion holy grail musical.