New design could finally help to bring fusion power closer to reality

Aug 16, 2015

MIT ARC team

By David L. Chandler

It’s an old joke that many fusion scientists have grown tired of hearing: Practical nuclear fusion power plants are just 30 years away—and always will be.

But now, finally, the joke may no longer be true: Advances in magnet technology have enabled researchers at MIT to propose a new design for a practical compact tokamak fusion reactor—and it’s one that might be realized in as little as a decade, they say. The era of practical , which could offer a nearly inexhaustible energy resource, may be coming near.

Using these new commercially available superconductors, rare-earth barium copper oxide (REBCO) superconducting tapes, to produce high-magnetic field coils “just ripples through the whole design,” says Dennis Whyte, a professor of Nuclear Science and Engineering and director of MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center. “It changes the whole thing.”

The stronger magnetic field makes it possible to produce the required magnetic confinement of the superhot plasma—that is, the working material of a fusion reaction—but in a much smaller device than those previously envisioned. The reduction in size, in turn, makes the whole system less expensive and faster to build, and also allows for some ingenious new features in the power plant design. The proposed reactor, using a tokamak (donut-shaped) geometry that is widely studied, is described in a paper in the journal Fusion Engineering and Design, co-authored by Whyte, PhD candidate Brandon Sorbom, and 11 others at MIT. The paper started as a design class taught by Whyte and became a student-led project after the class ended.


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7 comments on “New design could finally help to bring fusion power closer to reality

  • @OP link – “The much higher magnetic field,” Sorbom says, “allows you to achieve much higher performance.”

    Fusion, the nuclear reaction that powers the sun, involves fusing pairs of hydrogen atoms together to form helium, accompanied by enormous releases of energy. The hard part has been confining the superhot plasma—a form of electrically charged gas— while heating it to temperatures hotter than the cores of stars. This is where the magnetic fields are so important—they effectively trap the heat and particles in the hot center of the device.

    While most characteristics of a system tend to vary in proportion to changes in dimensions, the effect of changes in the magnetic field on fusion reactions is much more extreme: The achievable fusion power increases according to the fourth power of the increase in the magnetic field. Thus, doubling the field would produce a 16-fold increase in the fusion power. “Any increase in the magnetic field gives you a huge win,” Sorbom says.

    I would think this magnetic technology could also be applied to up-grading the performance of plasma rocket engines, making them more compact and more efficient.



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  • While the new superconductors do not produce quite a doubling of the
    field strength, they are strong enough to increase fusion power by
    about a factor of 10 compared to standard superconducting technology

    So let me see, 10 times 0 is … gosh darn it, never a calculator around when you need it.



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  • The achievable fusion power increases according to the fourth power of the increase in the magnetic field. Thus, doubling the field would produce a 16-fold increase in the fusion power. “Any increase in the magnetic field gives you a huge win,” Sorbom says.

    As the plasma in fusion reactors and in plasma rocket engines, is more than hot enough to melt or vaporise any metal containment vessels, keeping it within the “magnetic bottle” is the key to controlling and directing the hot plasma to do useful work.

    http://www.adastrarocket.com/aarc/VASIMR
    The VASIMR® engine uses electromagnetic (RF) waves to create and energize the plasma within its core. In this way, the VASIMR® engine has no physical material electrodes in contact with the hot plasma. The lack of electrodes results in greater reliability, longer life, and enables a much higher power density than competing ion and Hall thruster.



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  • Um, it’s not 0 though. They’ve been able to produce energy from fusion for years – just less energy than was needed to put into the reaction, until last year when they broke that barrier. The trouble is the reaction isn’t stable. Either way, a ten fold increase in power produced would make a huge difference to fusion’s viability.



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  • 5
    NearlyNakedApe says:

    @Article: Using these new commercially available superconductors, rare-earth barium copper oxide (REBCO) superconducting tapes, to produce high-magnetic field coils…

    IMHO, progress in the technology of superconductors at high temperature is the key to success not only in fusion reactors but it’s also the key to many other technological breakthroughs: super efficient electric motors, batteries, capacitors, solar panels, etc.. which in turn lead to a plethora of applications: electric cars with greater autonomy, reduced losses in the transport of electrical energy to name just a few.

    The possibilities are infinite….



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  • IF ONLY the billions wasted [yes, wasted] on this nonsense had been invested in the LFTR
    research, instead of Nixon nixing it, we would have had unlimited clean safe energy decades ago.

    What a disaster of a President…



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  • JimJFox
    Aug 19, 2015 at 1:07 pm

    IF ONLY the billions wasted [yes, wasted] on this nonsense had been invested in the LFTR research, instead of Nixon nixing it, we would have had unlimited clean safe energy decades ago.

    I think you are targeting the wrong technology.
    It is the presently widespread, accident prone, uranium reactors, which should have been ( and yet may be) superseded by Thorium reactors.
    Fusion power needs more development but has a very important future in the long term.

    What a disaster of a President…

    He was one of a bunch of posers with an adolescent mentality, where “my bomb needs to be bigger than your bomb”!

    To the obsessed military, Thorium is “useless”!
    It cannot be used for bombs, producing Plutonium, or terrorism, and any power plants using it can’t blow up!
    Not only that but the nuclear waste has a fraction of the half-life of waste from uranium plants!
    http://www.itheo.org/thorium-energy-conference-2012



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