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MIT: Practical Hot Fusion Just a Decade Away

It might be possible to build a working, small-scale hot fusion reactor with off-the-shelf technologies available right now, an MIT professor is claiming. Dennis Whyte thinks such a reactor could be built within 10 years.

“The era of practical fusion power, which could offer a nearly inexhaustible energy resource, may be coming near,” an August 10, 2015 press release from the MIT news office states.

A team of students and faculty members has proposed a new design for a small tokamak fusion reactor that would be smaller and cheaper than current designs. A tokamak reactor is a doughnut-shaped vacuum container in which deuterium and tritium are heated to temperatures of 150 million Celsius to create a super-hot plasma.

ITER components under construction in France.
ITER components under construction in France.

The best-known tokamak, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, or ITER, currently under construction in France will contain 10 tons of magnets and cost $40 billion to build. Scientists estimate that the project will not be ready for around 20 years, if ever.

Fusion Could Be on the Way

Whyte’s team is proposing a totally new design that utilizes commercially available superconductors and rare-earth barium copper oxide superconducting tapes to create magnetic coils. The new superconductors would enable the team to double the field strength needed to contain the power. They think their reactor will be much smaller and presumably far cheaper than the ITER.

The new superconducting magnets will enable the reactor to operate on a steady basis and have a sustained power output. It is currently possible to generate fusion reactions in the lab but not to sustain or control them. Whyte thinks that a controlled, sustained reaction could be created and maintained with the technology.

Artists conception of what MIT's ARC hot fusion reactor could look like.
Artists conception of what MIT’s ARC hot fusion reactor could look like.

The MIT device or an ARC reactor would put out three times the energy fed into it but could be increased to six times. The device could provide enough electricity for 100,000 people to use; that means it could power a small city.

The ARC would create electricity by making steam, which would be used to run turbines. The turbines would run generators that make the electricity. If Whyte is correct, the ARC could be used to replace coal- and natural gas-fired generators inside existing power plants.

This would be a truly disruptive technology because it could power a city without fuel or any pollution. It could also be used for running ships or for industrial processes.

What’s truly exciting is that Whyte’s team estimates the reactor could be built and tested within five years. That means commercial fusion reactors could be on the market within 10 years, which would be a complete game changer in the energy business.

One result of such reactors’ appearance on the market would be to kill off coal and to greatly reduce air pollution. It would also make global warming into a bad memory rather than a threat to humanity.

Perhaps the most incredible thing about the ARC reactor is that it was designed as a class project by Whyte, a professor of nuclear science and engineering, who serves as director of MIT’s Plasma Science and Research Center, and 11 students. This shows the power of modern computerized design technologies.

Hopefully Whyte will be able to get the funding needed to build his reactor. Perhaps a billionaire like Bill Gates or Jeff Bezos will step forward to provide the funds needed to get this project off the ground.

Prepare Yourself for the Fusion Revolution

If these reports are true, we could be on the verge of a fusion revolution. Fusion could be the ultimate disruptive energy technology that could completely drive fossil fuels off the market. It would do to coal and other fossil fuels what the automobile did to the horse-drawn buggy—drive them into the history books, where they belong.

An intriguing side effect of the fusion revolution would be the availability of vast amounts of super cheap electricity. That would make electric vehicles viable and greatly increase sales of Tesla’s battery storage systems.

It looks as if the most disruptive energy technology yet could be just over the horizon. Instead of always 30 years in the future, fusion could be just around the corner.