Fast forward 15 years and we could be living in a world with an unlimited supply of green energy. MIT has announced it is working with a private firm to build a nuclear fusion power plant capable of generating 100 megawatts of fusion power. If all goes to plan, it could be up and running as early as 2033. So far, the ambitious project has received $50 million in funding from an Italian energy company called Eni, $30 million of which will be spent on research and development.
So, what is nuclear fusion? In crude terms, imagine a billiards table. If nuclear fission is the balls breaking away from one another, nuclear fusion occurs when two balls collide. But instead of balls, the nuclear fusion power plant uses hydrogen atoms, which release vast amounts of energy as they merge to form helium. This is the process occurring on the sun.
Essentially, it is the next big step in energy production. If achieved, it could provide the whole world with a limitless stock of safe and sustainable carbon-free energy, replacing fossil fuels and mitigating the worst effects of climate change. Unlike nuclear fission, it does not result in dangerous nuclear waste or risk catastrophe-level nuclear accidents like Chernobyl.
While there are prototype nuclear fusion power plants currently in action, scientists have not yet managed to oversee a reaction without causing an energy deficit. What makes things different this time around is the availability of high-temperature superconductors; an asset that has only become commercially available in the last few years. These will allow MIT scientists to strengthen the magnetic field surrounding the hot-plasma fuel used in tokamak reactors and, therefore, make it possible to produce smaller, cheaper reactors.
“It’s about scale, and it’s about speed,” Robert Mumgaard, chief executive officer at Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS), the private company involved in the project, told Nature. The combined efforts of academics and industrialists should help to speed up the process and bring this technology to the marketplace in the coming years, he added.
There are several start-ups also working on similar projects, including Tokamak Energy, a UK company based near Oxford. Yet, experts say this is the most promising.
“If MIT can do what they are saying — and I have no reason to think that they can’t — this is a major step forward,” Stephen Dean, from Fusion Power Associates, an advocacy group in Gaithersburg, Maryland, told Nature.
Others remain skeptical, particularly where private investment is concerned. “This funding for MIT is terrific, but there’s just no way you are going to get the private sector to take on the full brunt of the fusion programme,” Stewart Prager, former director of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory in New Jersey, told Nature. Researchers hope to circumvent this problem by attracting government funding.
As Eni CEO Claudio Descalzi explained in a statement, "Fusion is the true energy source of the future, as it is completely sustainable, does not release emissions or long-term waste, and is potentially inexhaustible. It is a goal that we are increasingly determined to reach quickly.”