Venture Capital-Backed MIT Experiment to Provide a Shorter Path to Fusion Energy
The reaction that sustains the sun may now drive industries on Earth. MIT’s breakthrough experiment may put fusion energy on the grid come 2030.
The most powerful power plant in the solar system dwells deep into the burning heart of the sun—radiating energy for every living entity on Earth.
Two years ago, researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology set out with an ambition to achieve a remarkable reaction that only occurs in special conditions—temperatures reaching millions of degrees and pressures so immense that it naturally only occurs in the depths of the core of a star.
When two atoms collide with one another, the strong electrostatic forces of repulsion fling them apart because of like charges, akin to north poles of two magnets; but atoms at the core of a star are under such overbearing pressure from the inward gravitational pressure exerted by the star that their nuclei fuse—in a process hence called, nuclear fusion.
The sheer amount of clean energy produced through nuclear fusion could power humanity’s pursuits until the end of time.
MIT’s endeavour might be a means to the end of the energy crisis as we know it, and change the course of history.
With the dawn of the era of fusion energy upon us, let’s take a deeper look into MIT’s stellar experiment.
The Path to Fusion Energy
In 2018, the MIT Plasma Science & Fusion Centre in collaboration with a spinoff firm known as Commonwealth Fusion Systems initiated the development of SPARC, a ‘compact, high field fusion energy experiment’ as a predecessor to a zero-emission fusion plant.
At temperatures above 13 million kelvin, electrons are ripped away from their orbital shells in atoms and form an ionized gas, a state of matter known as plasma. Currently, there are two established pathways for plasma fusion: inertial confinement and magnetic confinement. The SPARC experiment will rely on the latter.
Magnetic confinement utilizes strong magnetic fields to direct plasma through the doughnut-shaped chamber of a reactor called a tokamak. The ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor) that began as an international megaproject between 35 collaborating nations also aims to develop a tokamak reactor providing a net energy yield. Magnetic confinement reactors employ superconducting magnets cooled to within a few degrees of absolute zero with liquid helium; operating between some of the largest temperature gradients in the world.
“Fusion on earth would be an entirely new source of energy for humankind, one with the potential to solve a critical challenge facing our civilization — decades of intense research have been motivated by fusion’s advantages. The fuel for fusion, deuterium, a naturally occurring form of hydrogen, and lithium, is sufficient on Earth to meet humankind’s energy needs for millions of years.” MIT explicated.
Once fusion ignition or self-sustenance is achieved, the net energy yield would be four times as much as that produced with nuclear fission, notes the World Nuclear Association. Eventually, there will come a day when a cup of seawater could be fused to generate enough power for an entire city’s daily power usage.
Beyond the hint of a doubt, fusion energy would be as much (if not more) of a ground-breaking contribution to science and the human civilisation as Tesla’s alternating current, or Einstein’s equation of General Relativity, if realised.
With our own metaphorical and literal microcosm of the sun, the energy crisis, climate change, oil wars… should all fade away as we step into the idyllic future we’ve built—or at least that is what we’ve envisioned for ourselves.
Is the gleaming vision of the utopia we’re chasing a dream soon to be realised or an illusion of the myopic?
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