A future powered by fusion energy is closer than ever before. This week, scientists at MIT got a large high-temperature superconducting electromagnet to a strength of 20 tesla. That’s the most powerful magnetic field of its kind ever created on Earth.
“Fusion in a lot of ways is the ultimate clean energy source,” Mari Zuber, MIT’s vice president of research, said in a Wednesday press release on the experiment. “The amount of power that is available is really game-changing.”
Fusion is such a big deal because it’s powered by water and would, theoretically, create an enormous amount of carbon-free energy. “It’s a nearly unlimited resource. We just have to figure out how to utilize it,” Zuber said.
Fusion powers the sun and recreating the process on Earth is a complicated process involving high temperature magnets generating massive magnetic fields. The MIT scientists set a goal three years ago of creating a magnet that could generate 20 teslas. They achieved it on schedule, even during the pandemic.
The next step is to design a fusion device called SPARC that can generate more plasma energy than it consumes. “I now am genuinely optimistic that SPARC can achieve net positive energy, based on the demonstrated performance of the magnets,’ Zuber said. “The next step is to scale up, to build an actual power plant. There are still many challenges ahead, not the least of which is developing a design that allows for reliable, sustained operation. And realizing that the goal here is commercialization, another major challenge will be economic. How do you design these power plants so it will be cost effective to build and deploy them?”
This isn’t the only recent breakthrough for fusion energy. On August 9, government scientists working at the National Ignition Facility in California shot 192 lasers at a BB-size capsule and generated 1.3 megajoules of energy, roughly five times the energy that was absorbed. Researchers working for General Atomics have constructed a six-story magnet with plans to use it to achieve nuclear fusion. Last year, scientists in Italy recreated nuclear fusion from the big bang under a mountain in Italy.
With climate change wreaking havoc on the planet, the need for alternative sources of energy is pressing and scientists across the planet are working around the clock to create it. “None of us are trying to win trophies at this point,” Zuber said. “We’re trying to keep the planet livable.”