MIT Researchers Claim Nuclear Fusion Could be Commercially Viable in 15 Years

first_imgLet us know what you like about Geek by taking our survey. Nuclear fusion has been something of the holy grail of power. It’s loosely the inspiration behind Tony Stark’s signature Arc reactor, and if we could master it, fusion could well change almost everything about how we understand use and think about power. But, of course, there’s a catch. It is really, REALLY hard to make it work. But folks at MIT are claiming they’ve got a new approach that could bring this tech online and deliver power to your home inside of 15 years.While MIT is one of the biggest and most well-known physics and engineering schools in the world, we should still approach this with a huge dose of skepticism. Physicists have been trying to nail this problem for over 50 years, and just recently, many still presumed we’d be waiting 25 years or more. The problem at the heart of it is that nuclear fusion — the same process that powers our own sun — requires ludicrous temperatures and extreme conditions. Reactors have to operate at many millions of degrees just to function at all, and they have to get much, much hotter to make back the energy we have to put in to start it up. The sample, in a cylinder of gold, is just a few millimeters across.That’s all because we are trying to kickstart what is essentially a star here on Earth — but without the massive gravity that stars have naturally. Because fusion relies on jamming atoms together to make new ones, you have to force them to collide and stick one way or another. Gravity and temperature both work — and stars indeed use both — but, since we only have one means, we have to compensate to keep the rate of fusion high enough to produce a net surplus of energy. The good news is that once we do, it’s basically craploads of carbon-free electricity. And I do mean CRAPLOADS. Some estimates put fusion at being capable of power a good portion of a large country with just one plant. So, what are the MIT folks doing differently this time around? Well, in a word, magnets. The team hopes to use stupendously powerful magnets and relatively high-temperature superconductors to compress the fusion reaction with magnetic fields instead of gravity. This could yield a lot more control, and help solve the aforementioned temperature problem. The new superconductors, made of a compound called yttrium-barium-copper-oxide (or YBCO) will allow the team to squeeze the reactor fuel in much the same gravity would naturally. And because magnetism is many billions of times stronger, we don’t need a star’s worth of mass to get there.Professor Howard Wilson of Yale University told the Guardian,“The exciting part about this is the high-field magnets… The higher the magnetic field, the more compactly you can squeeze that fuel.”Credit: PixabayWilson is skeptical that the team will have this on the grid in 15 years. Even under ideal conditions, a major new power plant takes between five and ten years to build out. With new technology? That gets even harder. And the team has yet to demonstrate that this will work. AND, even if all this does work (and it seems like there’s at least a decent chance it will), there are countless other concerns. Nuclear fusion throws off tons of damaging neutrons that cannot be controlled by magnetic fields, for example. These are radioactive in the usual sense, but they can heavily corrode the reactor core’s walls, requiring frequent replacement at the very least. Still, the potential and the will is there to make this happen. And if we could bring something like this online within 15 or 20 years, we have a much better chance of stalling climate change before it gets much worse. Fusion, while not an instant fix for everything, would be an incredible tool to have on our side. And while scientists have struggled for decades to make it work, the idea that a simple magnetic breakthrough could shift these tables enough to make fusion a moderate-term reality is exciting.last_img

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