Before I start my actual blog post, I would be remiss to not mention the passing of one greatest, if not the greatest, minds of my lifetime – Stephen Hawking. On March 14, 2018 at the age of 76, Stephen Hawking died in his home in Cambridge, England. Born on the anniversary of Galileo’s death and dying on the anniversary of Einstein’s birth, Hawking was an unparalleled force in the world of cosmology and a massive public science icon. His life’s work focused on black holes, the big bang, and reconciling general relativity with quantum mechanics, among studying other cosmological mysteries. He will undoubtedly be missed.
Now, to my real blog post.
Since the industrial revolution, the energy needs of human civilization have been growing at an unprecedented rate. For the large part of human history, people burnt wood and straw to heat their homes and relied on animal power for the labor they needed assistance with. But, starting in the mid-18th century with the introduction of the steam engine, industrialization catapulted us through the Coal Age and right into the Petroleum and Natural Gas Age. Though these resources have gotten us to our own age of incredible technology and innovation and productivity, the world is slowly waking up to the reality that, while our gains have been great, the damage we’ve done through pollution caused by burning these fuels is unsustainable for the future and dangerous to continued, healthy human existence on earth.
Right now, our hopes and expectations lie with a renewable energy future, primarily through photovoltaic (PV) solar energy. PV solar energy is, without a doubt, going to be a primary component to our energy production in the future. Its costs continue to drop as the technology’s efficiency continues to rise. We are only getting better at harnessing the power of the sun for our own through-the-roof energy needs. That said, PV solar isn’t entirely environmentally innocent, with land-use, water-use, toxic material use, and the use of our current fossil fuel infrastructure to produce and transport the panels slightly sullying its “clean” energy record. Despite being the cleanest feasible future energy source, there needs to be something cleaner than making panels to harvest the sun’s energy, right?
Well, there is.
In theory, anyway.
Rather than using our own sun’s energy from where it is 8 light minutes away from Earth, what if we brought a star to us on the ground to generate energy? That is, in a simplified sense, what fusion energy is.
Fusion energy is another form of nuclear energy that, if mastered by humans, would provide us with near-limitless, carbon-free energy. Unlike its close relative, fission energy, which relies on harvesting the energy from breaking apart the nuclei of large radioactive elements, fusion energy works by joining hydrogen nuclei at extremely high temperatures (+150,000,000° C) until they fuse into heavier helium atoms and unleash incredible amounts of energy. This is the process that all stars undergo every second to create the massive amounts of energy they release every second.
Fusion energy has been researched since the 1940s, so the concept isn’t new. It has long been a joke that fusion power is the power of the future, and always will be.
The biggest problem in creating a viable fusion reactor has been to create one that is a net-producer of energy. To this day, it costs more energy to create a stable amount of fusing plasma than it can produce from the heat coming off that plasma. Since this plasma is so hot, it needs to be magnetically suspended in a vacuum chamber where it won’t melt the rest of the plant. The energy cost of running the components of these vacuum chambers is what has prohibited fusion from becoming a net-producer of electrical energy.
Though there are other theoretical designs, the most promising fusion reactor design is known as a tokamak. This design is what is being used by ITER, currently the world’s largest and best hope for fusion production. ITER is a collaboration project of 35 member-nations working to build the world’s largest tokamak and prove to the world that fusion power is a viable energy solution.
The downside to ITER, however, is two-fold. Firstly, climate change is continuously pressing us for quicker solutions to our energy needs, and ITER isn’t scheduled to even produce plasma until 2025. Secondly, ITER has been in the works for some time, being first conceived in 1985 and starting construction and land development in 2007. This means that any new technology that has come about in the last decade wasn’t considered in its design.
This is where MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) comes in. On March 8th, MIT, alongside a new startup company made up of MIT graduates called Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS), announced a collaborative effort called SPARC that ushers in their entrance into the race for fusion power. They are intending to use newly perfected superconductor technology known as Rare-Earth Barium Copper Oxide, or yttrium-barium-copper oxide (YBCO), to improve the high-field magnets in their tokomak, making their reactor smaller, cheaper, and quicker to market. The MIT researchers designed SPARC to produce about 1/5 the amount of energy as ITER in about 1/65 the volume. This smaller-scale production of energy will not only allow for a quicker proof of concept, but also for a much more streamlined manufacturing process. In the view of the Deputy Director of MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center Martin Greenwald, “Fusion is way too important for only one track,” meaning that they are simply trying to prove alongside ITER that fusion energy on earth is possible.
MIT and CFS are planning on spending the next three years scaling up their superconducting magnet technology with the YBCO tape. From there, they wish to build SPARC to produce 100 MW of heat as a proof of concept for net-energy production. If, finally, SPARC proves to be successful, they will attempt to scale-up the design and create “the world’s first true fusion power plant, with a capacity of 200 MW of electricity, comparable to that of most modern commercial electric power plants.” They then hope that this will prove the viability of plants like these, and that they can be rolled out within 15 years of that point. Another point of importance with this project is the $50 million in funding from Eni, an Italian oil company, among other private funders, marking more private interest in fusion power.
Read more about SPARC, CFS, and MIT with MIT’s reporting on the project.
There has been constant hope for fusion energy for pretty much the entirety of my own life, as well as my parents’ and grandparents’ lives. It has long been promised and has long proven to be seemingly impossible to successfully pull off. I am by no means under the impression that this is the silver bullet for climate change or energy, let alone that this will even be successful. Even with all that doubt laid out, however, I am incredibly excited to see more teams enter the ring trying to get fusion off its feet and into the hands of the world’s energy consumers. I am hopeful that, one of these days, technology will finally rise to the challenge of producing fusion energy, and I, therefore, couldn’t be any more excited and hopeful towards SPARC, ITER, and the clean-energy future they’ll bring, than I already am.
Written By: Jacob Monash