The dream of nuclear fusion is on the brink of being realised, according to a major new US initiative that says it will put fusion power on the grid within 15 years.
The project, a collaboration between scientists at MIT and a private company, will take a radically different approach to other efforts to transform fusion from an expensive science experiment into a viable commercial energy source. The team intend to use a new class of high-temperature superconductors they predict will allow them to create the world’s first fusion reactor that produces more energy than needs to be put in to get the fusion reaction going.
Bob Mumgaard, CEO of the private company Commonwealth Fusion Systems, which has attracted $50 million in support of this effort from the Italian energy company Eni, said: “The aspiration is to have a working power plant in time to combat climate change. We think we have the science, speed and scale to put carbon-free fusion power on the grid in 15 years.”
The promise of fusion is huge: it represents a zero-carbon, combustion-free source of energy. The problem is that until now every fusion experiment has operated on an energy deficit, making it useless as a form of electricity generation. Decades of disappointment in the field has led to the joke that fusion is the energy of the future – and always will be. [Continue reading…]
If the plans go as expected and fusion power plants can finally be constructed, the resulting power would be cheaper than fossil fuels. “We know that for fusion to make a difference . . . it has to be economically competitive,” says Mumgaard. “The exciting part about this technology is that by shrinking the scale and keeping the power the same, we make more ‘power per stuff,’ which makes it much more likely to be economically competitive. The types of materials that are in this are materials that are commodities, and if you add up those materials you get a cost of electricity that undercuts existing energy prices.”
Of course, that’s assuming that everything goes as expected. But some other experts, like Michael Zarnstorff, deputy director for research at the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab, say that the technology is feasible to create within a short timeline. Zarnstorff also says that the growing number of other startups in nuclear fusion, which have received funding from investors like Paul Allen and Jeff Bezos, signals that the industry as a whole could be close to functioning technology.
“In the U.S., what typically happens is that when the science gets to a certain stage you start having startup companies who will try and close the gap,” he says. “You see this in all the energy technologies . . . people are judging that you’re close enough that they’re willing to put their own money into it to try and make a system that will work and can be made commercial. And this is what we’re starting to see.” [Continue reading…]
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