MIT and Commonwealth Fusion Systems researchers reached a major milestone on the road to fusion on 5 September 2021.
Researchers tested the world’s most powerful high-temperature superconducting electromagnet for the first time, MIT News reports. The electromagnet generated a field 20-tesla strong. That is the most powerful magnetic field of its kind ever created on Earth, MIT News claims.
Developing and building the electromagnet removes the greatest technological hurdle to completing Commonwealth’s SPARC fusion reactor. The SPARC is the fusion reactor Commonwealth’s executives claim they can build by 2025.
Commonwealth will use SPARC to test its ARC commercial fusion reactor. Commonwealth claims the ARC could generate enough electricity to power a small city.
Powerful Electromagnets could make fusion possible
“We built a first-of-a-kind, superconducting magnet,” Joy Dunn tells Ars Technica. “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.” Dunn is Commonwealth’s head of operations.
The SPARC will use magnetic fields generated by high-temperature semiconducting magnets to contain the super hot plasma fusion requires. The electromagnets are around three meters or nine feet tall.
They designed to electromagnets to generate stable 20-tesla strong magnetic fields, Ars Technica reports. A tesla is the unit they measure magnetic field strength with. The electromagnets run so hot it takes two weeks to cool them.
Superconductors could make fusion possible
Modern superconductors make the electromagnets possible. To explain, the electromagnets lose almost none of the electric current, so they retain power and keep the field running.
Ars Technica reports the superconducting material they call ReBCO (rare-earth barium copper oxide) cools the electromagnets to temperatures of 20 Kelvin (-423.67 Fahrenheit or -253.15 Celsius). Cooling the electromagnets makes the field possible.
ReBCO could make fusion more possible because they make it in flat ribbon like tape, MIT News speculates. The ReBCO tape makes it easier to build fusion devices. Older fusion devices needed giant designs needed giant magnetic bottles to contain the super-hot plasma.
The superconducting tape makes it possible to build fusion reactors in any shape. Commonwealth’s hope is to build reactors that are smaller and cheaper than giant fusion machines, such as the $65 billion dollar International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) in France. The new superconducting materials and electromagnets are the basis of Commonwealth’s SPARC and ARC designs.
Is Commonwealth on Schedule to build a fusion machine?
The successful superconducting electromagnet test means Commonwealth’s plan to build a fusion machine by 2025 is on schedule, Commonwealth Fusion Systems CEO Bob Mumgaard tells Ars Technica.
Commonwealth began in 2015 when a group of MIT scientists led by Dennis Whyte calculated that new superconducting materials could make it possible to build a fusion reactor within 10 years. Consequently, Whyte and his associates founded Commonwealth Fusion Systems to cash in by building that fusion reactor.
Since then Commonwealth has made impressive progress. For example, the company claims to have raised $200 million from private investors. Those investors include Bill Gates’ green technology hedge fund Breakthrough Energy Ventures.
In addition, Commonwealth is planning to build a 47-acre research and development facility in Devens, Massachusetts. They plan to build and test the electromagnets and the SPARC at the Devens site.
Thus, superconducting tape could make fusion reactors possible. Investors need to watch Commonwealth Fusion Systems because fusion could generate enormous amounts of energy without emitting greenhouse gases. Hence, fusion could destroy the fossil fuel industry and alleviate Climate Change.