New superconducting magnet breaks magnetic field strength records, paving the way for practical, commercial, carbon-free power.
It was a moment three years in the making, based on intensive research and design work: On September 5, for the first time, a large high-temperature superconducting electromagnet was ramped up to a field strength of 20 tesla, the most powerful magnetic field of its kind ever created on Earth. That successful demonstration helps resolve the greatest uncertainty in the quest to build the world’s first fusion power plant that can produce more power than it consumes, according to the project’s leaders at MIT and startup company Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS).
That advance paves the way, they say, for the long-sought creation of practical, inexpensive, carbon-free power plants that could make a major contribution to limiting the effects of global climate change.
“Fusion in a lot of ways is the ultimate clean energy source,” says 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.” 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.”
Developing the new magnet is seen as the greatest technological hurdle to making that happen; its successful operation now opens the door to demonstrating fusion in a lab on Earth, which has been pursued for decades with limited progress. With the magnet technology now successfully demonstrated, the MIT-CFS collaboration is on track to build the world’s first fusion device that can create and confine a plasma that produces more energy than it consumes. That demonstration device, called SPARC, is targeted for completion in 2025.
“The challenges of making fusion happen are both technical and scientific,” says Dennis Whyte, director of MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center, which is working with CFS to develop SPARC. But once the technology is proven, he says, “it’s an inexhaustible, carbon-free source of energy that you can deploy anywhere and at any time. It’s really a fundamentally new energy source.”
Whyte, who is the Hitachi America Professor of Engineering, says this week’s demonstration represents a major milestone, addressing the biggest questions remaining about the feasibility of the SPARC design. “It’s really a watershed moment, I believe, in fusion science and technology,” he says.
The sun in a bottle
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 here on Earth, what’s needed is a way of capturing and containing something that hot — 100,000,000 degrees or more — by suspending it in a way that prevents it from coming into contact with anything solid.
That’s done through intense magnetic fields, which form a kind of invisible bottle to contain the hot swirling soup of protons and electrons, called a plasma. Because the particles have an electric charge, they are strongly controlled by the magnetic fields, and the most widely used configuration for containing them is a donut-shaped device called a tokamak. Most of these devices have produced their magnetic fields using conventional electromagnets made of copper, but the latest and largest version under construction in France, called ITER, uses what are known as low-temperature superconductors.
The major innovation in the MIT-CFS fusion design is the use of high-temperature superconductors, which enable a much stronger magnetic field in a smaller space. This design was made possible by a new kind of superconducting material that became commercially available a few years ago. The idea initially arose as a class project in a nuclear engineering class taught by Whyte. The idea seemed so promising that it continued to be developed over the next few iterations of that class, leading to the ARC power plant design concept in early 2015. SPARC, designed to be about half the size of ARC, is a testbed to prove the concept before construction of the full-size, power-producing plant.