Fusion technology which powers up the sun and the stars is now a reality on Earth, thanks to a successful test of a “powerful magnet” by Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS) and MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center (PSFC).
Dennis Whyte, Director, MIT’s PSFC and Co-Founder of CFS, on a press conference call told reporters the magnet reached 20 tesla (unit of measurement showing the strength of a magnet) – this is 12 times more than the magnetic field of a traditional magnetic resonance imaging scan (MRI). “It did this while consuming only about 30 watts of energy, several orders of magnitude less than the traditional copper – conducting magnet that MIT had tested previously, which used 200 million watts,” Whyte said. “This magnet will change the trajectory of both fusion science and energy, and we think eventually the world’s energy landscape.”
CFS and PSFC’s new magnet is strong enough that when the team builds its donut-shaped fusion machine, called a tokamak, it will be able to achieve “net energy”. This means the fusion machine makes more energy that it takes to initiate and sustain the reaction. It has to be noted that so far, no company or institute has been able to achieve net energy fusion.
Andrew Holland, CEO, Fusion Industry Association, told CNBC that no companies, universities, national labs or governments have achieved the goal of break-even fusion to date. “This is not a hype, this is reality. With advances from across the fusion industry, we are seeing a new, clean, sustainable, always available energy source being born,” Holland said. “It’s a big deal.”
Whyte explained that the scale and performance of this magnet is similar to a non-superconducting magnet that was used in the MIT experiment that concluded its experiments five years ago. Fusion is the process that powers the sun – the merger of two small atoms to make a larger one, releasing prodigious amounts of energy. But the process requires temperatures far beyond what any solid material could withstand. To capture the sun’s power source on Earth, what’s needed is a way of capturing and something that hot, up to 100,000,000 degrees or more by suspending it in a way that prevents it from coming into contact with anything solid. And this is achieved through intense magnetic fields
The scientists and engineers at CFS and MIT’s PSFC said the new magnet technology is a key step in their technological development of commercialized fusion. The high temperature superconducting magnet will be used in its test fusion device, called SPARC, which is under construction in Devens, Maas and is on track to demonstrate net energy from fusion by 2025.
Bob Mumgaard, CEO, CFS, told the press conference that SPARC is doing most of the things that the passenger plane is doing, but not quite all of them. “It’s doing it in a way that is flexible, that we can try out, that we can break it and fix it, so that we develop the technologies and supply chains that you need to build the next one.”
Maria Zuber, MIT’s vice president for research and EA Griswold, Professor of Geophysics, said fusion in a lot of ways is the ultimate clean energy source. “The amount of power that is available is really game-changing. 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.”