Scientists at MIT believe they have found the key to making nuclear fusion a viable energy sourse and say they likely can bring the carbon- and combustion-free energy to market within the next 15 years.
The project, a collaboration between scientists at MIT and a private company, will take a radically different approach to other efforts to transform fusion from an expensive science experiment into a viable commercial energy source. The team intend to use a new class of high-temperature superconductors they predict will allow them to create the world’s first fusion reactor that produces more energy than needs to be put in to get the fusion reaction going.
How does nuclear fusion work?
Fusion works on the basic concept of forging lighter elements together to form heavier ones. When hydrogen atoms are squeezed hard enough, they fuse together to make helium, liberating vast amounts of energy in the process.
However, this process produces net energy only at extreme temperatures of hundreds of millions of degrees celsius – hotter than the centre of the sun and far too hot for any solid material to withstand.
To accommodate, scientists use powerful magnetic fields to keep the plasma from touching any parts of the chamber.
Recent advancements in material are the key that has enabled scientists to achieve an energy surplus.
A newly available superconducting material – a steel tape coated with a compound called yttrium-barium-copper oxide, or YBCO – has allowed scientists to produce smaller, more powerful magnets. And this potentially reduces the amount of energy that needs to be put in to get the fusion reaction off the ground.
“The higher the magnetic field, the more compactly you can squeeze that fuel,” said Wilson.
In the quest for renewable energies, fusion holds the most potential: no shortage of hydrogen, no green house gas emissions, and no nuclear waste to contend with.
Prof Maria Zuber, MIT’s vice-president for research, said that the development could represent a major advance in tackling climate change. “At the heart of today’s news is a big idea - a credible, viable plan to achieve net positive energy for fusion,” she said.
“If we succeed, the world’s energy systems will be transformed. We’re extremely excited about this.”