Fusion energy is often associated with Hollywood fantasy – think Tony Stark’s miniature Arc Reactor in “Iron Man.” But could a virtually unlimited source of zero-emission power actually become a reality? University of Washington engineers have designed a fusion reactor concept that could be cheaper than a coal-fired power plant with a similar electrical output. According to the results of their analysis, which will be presented at the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Fusion Energy Conference in St. Petersburg, Russia, a fusion power plant producing one gigawatt of energy would cost $2.7 billion compared to $2.8 billion for a coal plant.

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“Right now, this design has the greatest potential of producing economical fusion power of any current concept,” said Thomas Jarboe, a University of Washington professor of aeronautics and astronautics and an adjunct professor in physics. The University of Washington’s reactor’s prototype, called the dynomak, is less expensive and more energy intensive than other designs (such as France’s experimental Iter fusion reactor project), because magnetic fields are generated from driving electrical currents into the plasma itself rather than relying on superconducting coils.

Related: Nuclear Fusion Breakthrough Produces More Energy Than It Takes In

The U.S. Department of Energy is funding the research. The concept is about one-tenth the size of the final reactor, and the team plans to continue developing and scaling up prototypes. With continued investment in fusion reactor technology, this superhero energy source could leap off the silver screen. “If we do invest in this type of fusion, we could be rewarded because the commercial reactor unit already looks economical,” doctoral student Derek Sutherland said. “It’s very exciting.”

+ Dynomak

+ University of Washington

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