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The challenge and potential in reproducing the power of the sun

Recent advances in magnetic confinement fusion have taken us one step closer to achieving a valuable source of zero-carbon energy

Fusion is a long-held dream of the energy community. If it can be cracked, fusion offers the potential to provide safe, reliable, zero-carbon power using abundant fuels and producing minimal, low level radioactive waste.

While nuclear fission, which provides all current nuclear power, creates energy by splitting atoms, fusion is the opposite. It’s the process whereby the sun and other stars produce heat and light and so, unsurprisingly, it is not an easy thing to recreate.

This large-bore, full-scale high-temperature superconducting magnet designed and built by Commonwealth Fusion Systems and MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center (PSFC) has demonstrated a record-breaking 20 tesla magnetic field. It is the strongest fusion magnet in the world. Credit: Gretchen Ertl, CFS/MIT-PSFC, 2021

Recently, however, there have been a number of breakthroughs that have made fusion energy a more realistic prospect in the years to come.

Global advances

The UK-based Joint European Torus (JET) laboratory broke its own world record earlier this year for the amount of energy produced in a fusion reaction. While the energy produced was not huge, and was only for five seconds, it validated the research into fusion that is being carried out around the globe.

A few months later, scientists in South Korea sustained a reaction for 30 seconds, while research in Europe, the US and elsewhere has increased our understanding of what’s needed to make fusion a reality.

Spool of high-temperature superconducting tape used in the new class of fusion magnet. The magnet built and tested by CFS and MIT contains 267 km (166 mi) of tape, which is the distance from Boston, MA to Albany, NY. Credit: Gretchen Ertl, CFS/MIT-PSFC, 2021

As one of the first energy companies to invest in this field, Italian energy company Eni sees nuclear fusion as a potential breakthrough in the decarbonisation process.

“Fusion will be really important for our energy transition strategy,” says Francesca Zarri, Director, Technology, R&D and Digital at Eni. “It has no greenhouse gas emissions, is intrinsically safe and can provide continuous baseload power, which we can combine with renewables to contribute to decarbonise the energy system.”

Energy challenge

To produce energy from fusion on Earth, you have to heat two types of hydrogen gas – deuterium and tritium – to more than 100 million degrees Celsius. This creates a plasma – a superheated soup of positive and negatively charged particles– and their fusion releases a huge amount of energy from very small amounts of fuel: one kilo of fusion fuel can produce the same amount of energy as 8,500 tonnes of gasoline.

However, researchers have been unable to maintain the reaction for long enough to extract and harness the heat energy produced, or indeed to produce more energy than the process consumes. But now there are hopes that fusion is moving from being a physics problem to an engineering one.

A team of engineers and scientists from CFS and MIT’s PSFC lower the superconducting magnet into the test stand in which the magnet was cooled and powered to produce a magnetic field of 20 tesla. Credit: Gretchen Ertl, CFS/MIT-PSFC, 2021

“One of the key issues is how to contain the plasma and the enormous temperatures generated. There are a number of approaches to this, but the most mature is to use extremely powerful magnets, a process known as magnetic confinement, in a device known as a Tokamak,” explains Francesca Ferrazza, Head of Magnetic Fusion Initiatives at Eni.

Eni has been working on fusion for more than five years as a research proposition, but now the focus has switched to development and the company has drawn up an aggressive roadmap to bring fusion to commercialisation. It’s been collaborating with start-up Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS), a spin-out from MIT. “Together with CFS, we were the first energy company to support research in fusion,” says Ferrazza. “CFS is aiming to have the first grid-connected power station powered by fusion running at the start of the 2030s.”

Magnetic breakthrough

Research into fusion has long been the province of government-backed projects, such as the UK’s JET, or multilateral initiatives such as the 35-nation ITER experiment, which is based in France. But a growing number of private companies are exploring possibilities with increasing optimism.

Director of the PSFC Dennis Whyte (L) and CEO of CFS Bob Mumgaard (R) in the test hall at MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center. The collaboration which began over three years ago with the formation of Commonwealth Fusion Systems now moves to the next phase, building SPARC, which will be the world’s device to create and confine a plasma that produces net fusion energy. Credit: Gretchen Ertl, CFS/MIT-PSFC, 2021

CFS has achieved a technological breakthrough that it says will greatly accelerate the development of commercial fusion energy. The company has developed a new type of magnet made from novel “high temperature” superconductors that can create very powerful magnetic fields. This allows CFS to build smaller and lower cost magnetic confinement systems that will help make fusion power a reality on a much faster timeline.

“Our high-temperature superconducting magnets are a game changer for commercial fusion energy. They significantly increase the magnetic field and enable fusion devices that are smaller, and therefore faster and less expensive to build and commercialise,” says Bob Mumgaard, CEO of CFS.

Rendering of SPARC, a compact, high-field, tokamak, currently under design by a team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Commonwealth Fusion Systems. Its mission is to create and confine a plasma that produces net fusion energy. Credit: T. Henderson, CFS/MIT-PSFC, 2020

CFS, in which Eni is an investor, is in the process of manufacturing these high-temperature superconducting magnets in Massachusetts for the world’s first net energy-producing fusion machine, called SPARC, which is now under construction. SPARC is on track to be operational in 2025 with the goal to demonstrate that fusion can produce more energy than it consumes as soon as possible after that. Once this demonstration device has provided proof of concept, CFS plans to build the first commercially viable fusion power plant. “Besides being a financial investor, Eni is an important strategic partner that sees fusion as a strategic investment towards the deployment of the energy source of the future,” Mumgaard adds.

Thanks to these scientific and technological breakthroughs, harnessing the power of stars here on Earth no longer seems such a pipedream, bringing that dream closer to reality.

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