Commercially viable fusion energy may soon be a reality, following the successful trial of a new superconducting magnetic field. On September 5, scientists at MIT tested a large high-temperature electromagnet for the first time to gauge its strength. The first-of-its-kind magnetic field successfully demonstrated that it was possible to generate commercially viable fusion energy.
For decades, scientists have been trying to find a way of capturing fusion energy. The problem has always been the inability to capture more energy than is used. Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS), an MIT startup company, is the first firm in the world to achieve this.
“Fusion in a lot of ways is the ultimate clean energy source,” said Maria Zuber, MIT’s vice president for research and E. A. Griswold Professor of Geophysics. “The amount of power that is available is really game-changing.” Water helps fuels the creation of fusion energy, and “the Earth is full of water — it’s a nearly unlimited resource. We just have to figure out how to utilize it.”
In light of the successful demonstration, MIT and CFS are collaborating to build the world’s first fusion device. The demonstration device known as SPARC is scheduled to be completed by 2025.
Fusion is what powers the sun. The process involves merging two small atoms into one, which generates an enormous amount of energy. The problem with this process has always been that replicating it on Earth requires higher temperatures than most materials can hold. To solve the problem, scientists use intense magnetic fields to form an “invisible bottle” that contains “the hot swirling soup of protons and electrons.”
The MIT innovation introduces changes to the type of magnetic fields used in containing fusion atoms. The project used high-temperature superconductors, which helped create higher magnetic fields in a smaller space. Traditional technology requires a much larger apparatus to create this same kind of magnetic field.
The design was made possible due to a new kind of superconducting material becoming commercially available a few years ago. If the process is successful, fusion energy will be able to replace traditional energy sources and get rid of the stubborn carbon emissions problem.
Lead image via Gretchen Ertl, CFS/MIT-PSFC, 2021