Fusion energy within fifteen-year reach, MIT says

MIT to collaborate with private company to research superconducting magnets

8501 sparc fusion 01 press
A visualization of the proposed SPARC tokamak experiment.
8501 sparc fusion 01 press
A visualization of the proposed SPARC tokamak experiment.

Fifteen years: that’s the amount of time MIT researchers and industrial collaborators say they need to achieve the long sought after dream of usable fusion energy — and in doing so, curb the trajectory of climate change.

MIT announced March 9 that it would partner with Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS), a newly formed private company led by former MIT affiliates and one of the startups involved with The Engine, MIT’s ‘tough tech’ startup incubator. MIT and CFS will work together on a “novel approach to fusion power” that utilizes recent advances in superconductor technology, according to MIT News.

CFS has also attracted a $50 million investment from Eni, an Italian oil company and one of the founding members of the MIT Energy Initiative.

“This is an important historical moment: Advances in superconducting magnets have put fusion energy potentially within reach, offering the prospect of a safe, carbon-free energy future,” President L. Rafael Reif told MIT News.

The collaboration will combine MIT’s strength in research with CFS’s experience in commercialization, Zach Hartwig PhD ’14, assistant professor of nuclear science and engineering at MIT, said in a press call March 8.

Fusion is the energy-rich process of smashing light elements together to produce heavier elements. The process requires extremely high temperatures, which is why the main place it occurs naturally is in the core of stars.

No solid material can withstand these temperatures, so to induce fusion, scientists must trap the hot atoms in a strong magnetic field, often using a toroidal device called a tokamak.

The energy required to induce a fusion reaction is greater than the energy that can currently be produced from the reaction.

However, researchers at MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center (PSFC) and CFS believe that a new superconducting material consisting of steel tape coated with yttrium-barium-copper oxide (YBCO) will greatly reduce the amount of energy required.

MIT and CFS aim to use YBCO to create superconducting magnets that will be used to contain fusion reactions. Once this research has been conducted — a process they expect to take three years — the technology will be used to build SPARC (Soonest Possible Affordable Robust Compact), the tokamak design they hope will allow net positive energy production from fusion.

However, according to MIT News, while SPARC is designed to produce 100 megawatts of heat, it will not be able to convert this energy into electricity. Instead, this final step will take the form of a fusion pilot plant (called ARC), which MIT hopes will be operational and integrated into the grid within the 15 year timeline, the SPARC website wrote.

MIT’s fusion research will be funded by CFS for this collaboration, and CFS is currently seeking the support of additional investors.

CFS CEO Robert Mumgaard PhD ’15 said in the press call that there are other interested private companies working in fusion technology in the area, but he did not list names. 

As for why a major player in the oil industry like Eni would want to invest in the development of an alternative energy source, Vice President for Research Maria Zuber said in the call that Eni views themselves as an “energy company” and is actively seeking to diversify its energy portfolio.

Eni will also be engaging with the PSFC intellectually as well as financially, according to PSFC Director Dennis Whyte, and is expected to be a long-term partner, according to Mumgaard.

MIT spokespersons have also been careful to credit the role federal funding has played in supporting fusion research to date. “We’re in a position today to potentially commercialize fusion energy because of long-term support from the federal government,” Zuber said.

The SPARC website emphasizes that MIT is “augmenting, not moving away from,” the traditional federally funded model, as commercialization efforts cannot be supported by government resources.

MIT and CFS’s work will complement the other fusion projects that are currently underway.

Most prominent is the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), the world’s largest fusion experiment. ITER expects to begin producing fusion energy around 2035 — just two years after MIT’s estimated finish date.

If successful, SPARC’s power output will be about a fifth of ITER’s, but it will also take the form of a device that takes up only 1/65 of the volume, according to MIT News.  

In the realm of industry, Google has also entered the race toward fusion technology. Together with Tri Alpha Energy, it developed an algorithm that would significantly speed up plasma experiments, The Guardian reported in July 2017.

But the claim that the fusion field is on the brink of a breakthrough is not a new one, which Zuber acknowledged in her editorial in The Boston Globe. “The sardonic quip has been that it’s always 30 years away,” Zuber wrote.

However, Zuber continued confidently, “The joke part is about to change.”