The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has started commercializing its hot fusion process.
A privately-held company called Commonwealth Fusion Systems will try to develop a hot-fusion reactor based on MIT research, a press release indicates. Commonwealth has received a $50 million investment from the Italian oil company Eni (NYSE: E) to commercialize the technology. The money will be spent on fusion research at MIT and reactor development at Commonwealth.
“Researchers at MIT have designed a way to use high-temperature superconductors to produce powerful magnetic fields that provide superior confinement of the hot plasma — enabling a net energy fusion device at much smaller scale than did previous experiments,” MIT Vice President for Research Maria T. Zuber wrote in The Boston Globe.
MIT and Eni are trying to Commercialize Hot Fusion
“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,” Zuber revealed. “Given this important scientific advance, we at MIT believe it is time to move fusion energy decisively forward.”
Commonwealth Fusion Systems was founded by former MIT students and researchers that want to commercialize hot fusion. Commonwealth has also received some money from unidentified “U.S. Investment Funds,” Zuber claimed.
Theoretically, hot fusion can produce unlimited amounts of power without pollution, by heating plasma up to temperatures of 200 million degrees. Unlike fission; which powers today’s nuclear power plants, fusion would produce no radiation.
Potential uses for hot fusion including creating vast amounts of steam for heating or generating electricity, powering ships, and industrial uses that require a lot of heat. Industries; where fusion can be used, include oil refining, steel production, plastics, chemicals, and making cement.
Another use for fusion would be waste disposal because trash and hazardous wastes can be totally destroyed by the incredibly intense heat of fusion reactors. Some researchers have also mentioned the use of fusion for powering rockets and aircraft.
MIT Superconductors can make Fusion a Reality
The reactor is based on superconducting electromagnets developed at MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center (PSFC). The research was led by PFSC Director Dennis Whyte and his deputy director Martin Greenwald.
“Our strategy is to use conservative physics, based on decades of work at MIT and elsewhere,” Greenwald said.
Whyte; the Hitachi America Professor of Engineering and head of MIT’s Nuclear Science and Engineering Department has claimed it might be possible to build a working hot fusion reactor with off-the-shelf technology within 10 years in the past.
It sounds as if he is trying to put his hypothesis to the test. The PSFC built a fusion reactor called the Alcator C-Mod that used industrial magnets to contain plasma heated by radio frequency heating to achieve fusion.
MIT Researchers Planning World’s First Fusion Plant
The PSFC team will help Commonwealth build a “compact and powerful fusion experiment” called SPARC that employees its proprietary superconducting electromagnets, MIT News reported.
The SPARC is designed to generate up to 100 megawatts (MW) of heat to demonstrate the viability of hot fusion. The SPARC would use the popular tokamak fusion reactor design.
“If SPARC does achieve its expected performance, my sense is that’s sort of a Kitty Hawk moment for fusion, by robustly demonstrating net power, in a device that scales to a real power plant,” Greenwald claimed.
After SPARC, Commonwealth wants to build the world’s fusion power plant which would generate around 200 megawatts of electricity. That would produce enough electricity to power a small city. The hope is to have such a plant up and running with 15 years.
The MIT researchers should know if the SPARC is a viable project within three years, Whyte revealed. He expects that it will take about three years of R&D to get the data needed to build a working fusion reactor from the PSFC’s research.
Is Fusion Coming in 15 years?
“By putting the magnet development up front,” Whyte said. “We think that this gives you a really solid answer in three years, and gives you a great amount of confidence moving forward that you’re giving yourself the best possible chance of answering the key question, which is: Can you make net energy from a magnetically-confined plasma?”
“What you’re looking for is power production technologies that are going to play nicely within the mix that’s going to be integrated on the grid in 10 to 20 years,” MIT assistant professor of nuclear science and engineering Zach Hartwig Ph.D. said.
“The grid right now is moving away from these two- or three-gigawatt monolithic coal or fission power plants,” Hartwig added. “The range of a large fraction of power production facilities in the U.S. is now is in the 100 to 500-megawatt range. Your technology has to be amenable with what sells to compete robustly in a brutal marketplace.”
The SPARC project is building on research that has been done at MIT since 1971. Commonwealth, which is based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, will take part in the MIT Energy Initiative. The Initiative is a university-industry partnership designed to commercialize energy technology developed at MIT.
Commonwealth is one of several startups working with the Initiative. Eni is planning to invest around $1 million in fusion research projects at PSFC in addition to its stake in Commonwealth.
“That’s why this kind of academic-industry collaboration was essential to enable the technology to move forward quickly,” Greenwald said. “This is not like three engineers building a new app in a garage.”
It looks as if hot fusion might be far closer to reality than we think. If it is coal is doomed, and it might be possible to reduce the risk of global warming.