Today’s Solutions: May 22, 2022

As shown by the most recent IPCC report, moving away from fossil fuels as fast as possible is key to preventing catastrophic consequences from climate change. According to scientists, fusion power has a huge potential to transition the world towards a cleaner and safer energy future, but so far it has proven incredibly difficult to build the necessary technology to make it commercially viable. That may soon change, however, thanks to a new breakthrough at MIT.

The good news follows a recent study from MIT scientists who have tested a large high-temperature electromagnet for the first time to measure its strength. A first-of-its-kind, the magnetic field successfully proved that it was possible to generate commercially viable fusion power.

So far, the problem preventing fusion from wide-scale adoption has been the challenge to capture more energy than is used to generate it. Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS), an MIT startup company, is the first one in the world to demonstrate that a full-scale commercial fusion power plant is practical.

“Fusion in a lot of ways is the ultimate clean energy source,” said Maria Zuber, MIT’s vice president for research. “The amount of power that is available is really game-changing.” The fuel needed to create fusion power comes from water, and “the Earth is full of water — it’s a nearly unlimited resource. We just have to figure out how to utilize it.”

Fusion powers the sun, where gravity compressing small atoms into larger ones, which releases huge amounts of energy in the process. The challenge so far has been creating those conditions on Earth, as it requires much higher temperatures than most materials can hold. The MIT innovation solves that problem by using intense magnetic fields to create an “invisible bottle” that contains “the hot swirling soup of protons and electrons.”

The new project involves high-temperature superconductors, which helped create higher magnetic fields in a relatively small space. Creating similar magnetic fields typically required much larger machinery.

The breakthrough was made possible thanks to a new kind of superconducting material that became commercially available a few years ago. Following the successful trial, the researchers are now working to build the world’s first fusion device, a project expected to reach completion by 2025.

If everything goes according to plan, fusion energy will be able to replace conventional energy sources and pave the way for a future where greenhouse gas emissions are no longer associated with energy production.

Image source: MIT

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