High-temperature semiconductors and stronger magnets pave the way to a cheaper fusion-powered future

Shane McGlaun - Nov 8, 2018, 7:49 am CST
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High-temperature semiconductors and stronger magnets pave the way to a cheaper fusion-powered future

One of the goals that scientists around the world have been working towards for years is clean and cheap fusion power. A move to fusion power is believed to be one key to helping reverse climate change created from older methods of generating electricity. Researchers from MIT and Commonwealth Fusion systems are working to speed the development of fusion energy using new technologies. The tech they are leveraging in their plan is new high-temperature superconductors that can be used to build magnets that produce much stronger magnetic fields.

Stronger magnetic fields are needed to bring fusion power to reality. The scientists plan to use the new tech to construct what they believe will be the first fusion experiment in the world to yield a net energy gain, called SPARC. Fusion reactions have been produced in modern fusion experiments, but so far none of them have produced a net energy gain. Stronger magnets are needed because the magnetic field created in fusion devices keep the hot ionized gas, known as plasma, isolated and insulated from ordinary matter.

The stronger the magnetic field, the better the plasma is insulated from ordinary matter, and less space is needed to keep plasma hot. Essentially stronger magnets mean smaller, faster, and cheaper fusion generators. The breakthrough tech here comes in the high-temperature superconducting material. Usually, superconductors need to be very cold to operate, but the new compounds used in the superconductors the researchers are leveraging can function at much higher temperatures.

The new superconducting materials are made in the form of “tapes” or “ribbons” that can make magnets of much higher performance; the catch is that the magnets being produced with these materials now are too small for fusion machines. Before the new SPARC fusion experiment can kick off, the new superconducting materials have to be incorporated into larger, stronger magnets needed for fusion devices.

Magnet development will come first; then the SPARC fusion experiment will kick off. SPARC will be a tokamak fusion device similar to other fusion machines in operation now; the researchers hope to have SPARC operational by 2025.


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