By Tracy Staedter

Fusion power is always two or three decades away. Dozens of experimental reactors have come and gone over the years, inching the field forward in some regard, but still falling short of their ultimate goal: producing cheap, abundant energy by fusing hydrogen nuclei together in a self-sustained fashion.

Now an MIT spin-off wants to use a new kind of high-temperature superconducting magnet to speed up development of a practical fusion reactor. The announcement, by Commonwealth Fusion Systems, based in Cambridge, Mass., caused quite a stir. CFS said it will collaborate with MIT to bring a fusion power plant online within 15 years—a timeline faster by decades than other fusion projects.

CFS, which recently received an investment of US $50 million from Eni, one of Europe’s largest energy companies, says the goal is to build a commercial fusion reactor with a capacity of 200 MWe. That’s a modest output compared to conventional fission power plants—a typical pressurized water reactor, or PWR, can produce upwards of 1,000 MWe—but CFS claims that smaller plants are more competitive than giant, costly ones in today’s energy market.

It’s certain that, between now and 2033, when CFS expects to have its reactor ready for commercialization, the company will face a host of challenges. These revolve around key milestones that include: fabricating and testing the new class of superconducting magnets, and using them to build an experimental reactor, which CFS named SPARC; figuring out how to run SPARC so that fusion reactions inside the machine can produce excess energy in a continuous manner, one of the biggest challenges in any fusion reactor; and finally, scaling up the experimental design into a larger, industrial fusion plant.

Each of these steps embodies numerous scientific and engineering quandaries that may have never been seen before or have already confounded some of the smartest physicists and nuclear engineers in the world. Can CFS and MIT finally harness fusion power? Maybe. In 15 years? Probably not.

“Fusion research remains fusion research,” says Robert Rosner, a professor of physics at the University of Chicago and the former director of Argonne National Laboratory. “It’s a field where getting to a practical, energy-generating reactor is not an engineering issue, but a basic science issue.”

Continue reading at IEEE Spectrum…

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