A sun on Earth: the clean and unlimited source of energy that MIT scientists are working on

A sun on Earth: the clean and unlimited source of energy that MIT scientists are working on


Producing nuclear fusion energy is one of the great promises of engineering, so much so that it is jokingly said to be the energy of the future … eternally.

Well, a group of researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the company Commonwealth Fusion Systems, is betting to put an end to the joke: they are building a nuclear plant that could produce clean and virtually unlimited energy .

His goal is to have, within 15 years, a power plant working as a Microsol produce heat capable of generating 200 mega watts continuously without producing pollution. That amount of energy reaches to feed a small city, of about 200,000 inhabitants.

“If we succeed, it would be the first time this would be achieved,” says Martin Greenwald, one of the leaders of the MIT Plasma Fusion and Science Center, who is developing this project, which they have called Sparc.

Martin GreenwaldImage caption Martin Greenwald is confident that in 15 years they will be able to create nuclear energy in a sustained manner. Photo: Bryce Vickmark / MIT

The key is in the magnets

Sparc’s experiment is based on nuclear fusion , a process in which light elements such as hydrogen join together to form heavier elements, such as helium, which releases immense amounts of energy.

In fact, fusion is the same source that gives energy to the sun and the stars.

To achieve this process, the matter must be heated to very high temperatures, which exceed hundreds of millions of degrees . Matter in that hot state is called plasma.

Nuclear fusion is achieved only if the plasma stays warm. How to keep so it isolates of ordinary matter, which is achieved with a re actors shaped ring knock or tokamak , which create a magnetic field which keeps the plasma “caged”.

The success of a tokamak lies in the quality of its magnets. The more powerful and higher quality, the better the thermal insulation they achieve for the plasma. It is like a coat, the more robust and better quality the fabric, will keep the body more “isolated” from the cold.

a city
Copyright of the GETTY IMAGES imageImage caption Nuclear energy has the potential to supply us in a clean and virtually unlimited way.

The problem is that the tokamak that exist today consume more energy than they manage to produce through fusion. That is, they do work, but they would not be profitable to use outside of a laboratory.

Sparc’s hope is that its tokamak will have more powerful magnets , of better quality, smaller and faster, with which they hope to optimize the fusion process.

With these magnets they hope to produce a magnetic field four times strongerthan any that has been used in a fusion experiment.

The goal is to increase the power generated by a tokamak of its size by about ten times .

If they do, it would be the first time that a plasma fusion device produces more energy than it consumes.

Safe, clean and unlimited energy

When they talk about nuclear power plants, it is common to remember catastrophes like Chernobyl in 1986 or Fukushima in 2011.

“This is a completely different process,” says Greenwald.

Copyright of the GETTY IMAGES imageImage caption Nuclear fusion is the source that gives energy to the sun and stars.

Ordinary nuclear energy uses very heavy atoms such as uranium or plutonium that break and release energy, in a process called fission , similar to that used to build nuclear weapons.

The fusion, is the opposite process, in which light elements such as hydrogen join and produce helium.

According to Greenwald, in an experiment such as Sparc there is no way to generate a chain reaction like the one that occurred in Fukushima. “If you want to stop the reaction, just close the valve,” he says.

The supplies that Sparc will work with are mainly hydrogen, which according to the MIT researchers “there is enough on earth to meet the needs of humans for millions of years”, which means that a nuclear fusion machine has the potential to generate virtually unlimited energy.

A nuclear reactor
Copyright of the GETTY IMAGES imageImage caption Spark tokamak will use better quality magnets.

In addition, as the fusion is not produced from fossil fuels, it does not generate greenhouse gases or other pollutants such as sulfur dioxide or particles such as soot.

Is it possible this time?

In the midst of enthusiasm there are skeptical voices.

“This funding for MIT [in this project] is excellent, but there is no way I can get the private sector to take charge of the entire fusion program,” he said in the journal Nature Stewart Prager, former director of Physics Laboratory Plasma from Princeton, New Jersey.

For his part, Howard Wilson, professor of plasma physics at the University of York, in the United Kingdom, told The Guardian newspaper that although the project seems interesting, he does not see how they can achieve the goal of putting their energy in the network in 15 years.

“It’s an aggressive schedule, but we think it’s possible,” says Greenwald.

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