MIT joins a major startup backed by Bill Gates to build a viable fusion machine

The goal is to build the world's first burning plasma net energy machine.
Ameya Paleja

The Plasma Science and Fusion Center (PSFC) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has signed a new five-year agreement with Commonwealth Fusion System (CFS) to continue their collaboration on fusion energy research and education activities, an institutional press release said. 

Backed by investors including Bill Gates, and energy giants Eni and Equinor, the CFS is a technology spinout from MIT which announced last year that it had successfully created a magnetic field of 20 tesla, the most powerful magnetic field of its kind using high temperature superconducting (HTS) magnet technology ever created on Earth. 

The MIT-CFS collaboration is on track to build the world’s first fusion device that produces more energy than it consumes. The demonstration device, called SPARC, is slated for completion in 2025. If successful, it could usher in the widescale use of fusion energy in the near future. 

How can we harness nuclear fusion energy?

Nuclear fusion is the name given to the process when smaller atoms slam into each other to produce atoms with a heavier nucleus and release high amounts of energy as a byproduct. This is the process that occurs quite effectively in stars like our Sun and scientists have been trying to replicate the process on Earth to generate energy in a carbon-free way. 

However, the process requires temperatures much higher than any solid material can withstand. One solution is to create intense magnetic fields to contain the hot plasma "soup" of electrons and protons. Because these particles have an electric charge, they can be contained by extremely strong magnetic fields. The most widely used configuration for containing them is a donut-shaped device called a tokamak.

Most of these devices generate magnetic fields using electromagnets made of copper, but CFS's superconducting magnet will be made from Rare Earth Barium Copper Oxide (REBCO) which will help make smaller, faster, and less expensive reactors, the startup claims on its website. The recently completed tests set the stage for a demonstration of the technology. CFS and MIT are collaborating on this front, with a facility currently under construction. Once this is completed, CFS will attempt to put in the first plasma and then harvest net energy from the reactor, a key step towards the commercialization of this technology. 

Applications of nuclear fusion energy

CFS aims to set up a commercial-scale nuclear fusion reactor that will supply energy to the grid after the successful demonstration of the technology. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) suggests that nuclear fusion will provide a limitless, economic and sustainable source of energy while generating minimal radioactive waste. Learnings from plasma physics and fusion technology such as ceramics, metals, and coatings as well as welding are already being used to benefit human society. 

According to the press release, the CFS will focus on commercializing the technology while PSFC will continue with cutting-edge research and education in this domain.

"Building one or 10 fusion plants doesn’t make a difference — we have to build thousands," said Dennis Whyte, PSFC Director. "The real enemy here is time, and we want to remove as many impediments as possible and commit to funding a new generation of scientific leaders. Those are critically important in a field with as much interdisciplinary integration as fusion."

Last month, a spinoff from Oxford University demonstrated another nuclear fusion technology does not rely on magnets or lasers and wants to set up a commercial-scale reactor by 2030. 

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