Nuclear fusion, the same natural process that powers the sun and stars, can be the ultimate green energy source on earth.
While it poses secrets and hurdles that scientists have not been able to crack, a group of researchers is confident they may replicate the process within four years, according to a report published on Sept. 29 in the Journal of Plasma Physics, as Live Science reported.
“Virtually all of us got into this research because we’re trying to solve a really serious global problem,” said the author of the report, Martin Greenwald, a plasma physicist at MIT. “We want to have an impact on society. We need a solution for global warming—otherwise, civilization is in trouble. This looks like it might help fix that.”
Together with a spinoff company, Commonwealth Fusion Systems, scientists at MIT are building a new experimental model for replicating the process, dubbed the SPARC (Soonest/Smallest Private-Funded Affordable Robust Compact) reactor.
With SPARC, the researchers hope to recreate “burning plasmas,” an essential element for ongoing fusion reactions such as that in the sun.
A burning plasma is one in which fusion reactions provide the majority of the plasma heating, the Department of Energy explains. Yet, as Live Science reported, regulating burning plasma in reactions so far has not been mastered by science, and the researchers are still trying to decode it fully.
Still, the SPARC device, which will be constructed next June, could be ready for its first fusion reaction as soon as 2025. That’s a decade sooner than expected from a different fusion project named the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), which is due to operate by 2035. However, it has been under construction since 2013.
The SPARC project uses high-temperature superconducting magnets, which only became commercially available in 2015. The magnets can produce magnetic fields at a maximum range of 21 teslas and are nearly twice as powerful as those used in ITER, at 12 teslas.
Thanks to the more advanced magnets, the center of SPARC will be much less bulky. Live Science said the ITER heart is three times bigger in diameter and 60 to 70 times greater in volume than SPARC’s.
“That dramatic reduction in size is accompanied by a reduction in weight and cost,” said Greenwald, who is also the lead scientist of the SPARC project. “That’s really the game-changer.”
SPARC, while not directly sourcing electricity, can extract heat from its fusion reactions that will. Steam from the heat emitted from the fusion reactor will drive a turbine and an electrical generator, therefore producing electricity.
Greenwald said that fusion power plants would be the ideal replacement for fossil fuel plants because of the same mechanism, which makes it easier to accommodate into the system.
He added that the fusion device they are working on can at max produce 1,000 megawatts or double the overall electricity production the U.S. currently generates, of 500 megawatts.
SPARC could be producing electricity within 10 years of researchers beginning their first fusion reactions ever with it. But it would require a separate device, entitled the ARC (Affordable Robust Compact) reactor, to be constructed to convert the heat issued from SPARC.
Although it seems ambitious, Greenwald was confident they could achieve the goal.
Nuclear power plants have been generating energy through nuclear fission where atoms are separated, a reaction that also generates radioactive waste. According to the Energy Information Administration, such materials can remain harmful to human health for thousands of years.
However, during fusion, atomic nuclei are combined under at least 180 million degrees Fahrenheit (100 million degrees Celsius) to generate energy. As Live Science noted, it does not produce greenhouse gases or any other pollutants and requires substances abundantly available, such as hydrogen.