The successful test of an incredibly powerful and power-efficient magnet constitutes a key milestone in nuclear fusion development, bringing us a step closer to commercially viable fusion energy, according to a report by MIT.
Bill Gates-backed startup Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS) and MIT's Plasma Science and Fusion Center (PSFC) announced on Wednesday, September 8, that their tests, carried out at the MIT Plasma Science and Fusion Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts on Sunday at 6 am local time, were a success.
A new superconducting magnet brings fusion a step closer
During the test, the magnet reached 20 tesla, a unit of measurement named after pioneering engineer Nikola Tesla, and used to denote the strength of a magnet. As a point of reference, a superconducting magnet in 2019 broke the previous world record by displaying a magnetic field intensity of 45.5 tesla. However, what sets the MIT and CFS magnet apart is the fact that it was able to reach 20 tesla while only consuming about 30 watts of energy. This performance is vastly superior to a magnet MIT had previously tested that used 200 million watts of energy.
The new magnet utilizes high-temperature superconductors to reach its magnetic intensity with high power efficiency. It is strong enough that it will allow CFS and MIT to achieve "net energy" with their tokamak fusion reactor, meaning they would be producing more energy than their reactor requires to sustain a fusion reaction. No company has ever achieved net energy fusion, a requirement for tapping into the practically limitless clean energy of nuclear fusion.
Nuclear fusion is the reaction the sun and stars use to produce energy. It occurs when two atoms slam together to form a heavier nucleus, releasing vast amounts of energy in the process. In a circular nuclear fusion reactor, called a tokamak, powerful magnets, such as the one developed by MIT and CFS, control and stabilize the burning plasma needed for the reaction to take place.
"This is not hype"
It might seem like every week headlines tout a new major breakthrough towards fusion energy. That's partly because experts worldwide are racing to develop commercially viable nuclear fusion and are making great progress in what will ultimately be a long journey. Last month, researchers from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) in California announced that they are on the "threshold of nuclear fusion ignition." Their latest experiments had yielded a breakthrough, as the energy produced from fusion was 70 percent of that emitted by a powerful laser needed to kickstart the reaction — a significant improvement over previous experiments. Chief Scientist on that project, Omar A. Hurricane, called it a "Wright Brothers moment" for a nuclear fusion.
Speaking about CFS and MIT's new magnet breakthrough in an interview with CNBC, Andrew Holland, Chief Executive Officer of the Fusion Industry Association, said "this is not hype, this is reality. With advances from across the fusion industry, we’re seeing a new, clean, sustainable, always available energy source being born." CFS has raised more than $250 million from investors including Breakthrough Energy Ventures, a sustainability investment that includes Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, and Richard Branson as backers.
The new magnet will be utilized in CFS's fusion Tokamak experiment, called SPARC, which is under construction in Devens, Massachusetts. In the MIT press statement, Maria Zuber, MIT's vice president for research, said "I now am genuinely optimistic that SPARC can achieve net positive energy, based on the demonstrated performance of the magnets. The next step is to scale up, to build an actual power plant." All going to plan, MIT and CFS aim to have their first operational fusion power plant, called ARC, online in the early 2030s.