There’s a reason fusion is called the “holy grail” of energy sources. The method—which fuses two hydrogen atoms together into helium, producing energy in the process—uses a material that is virtually free, limitless, and equally distributed around the globe and produces energy with minimal environmental impact.
After twenty five years of research, scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology think that they have finally cracked the code for the commercialization for nuclear fusion reactions.
Commonwealth Fusion Systems is the fruit of that research. It’s a startup building on decades of research and development that plans to harness the power of the sun to create a cleaner, stable source of energy for consumers.
The company unveiled its technology and a first $64 million in financing from investors including the Italian energy company, Eni; Breakthrough Energy Ventures, the investment consortium established by the world’s richest men and women, and The Engine, MIT’s own investment vehicle for frontier technologies.
For Bob Mumgaard, the chief executive of Commonwealth Fusion Systems, everything appears to be proceeding according to plan. on track. “CFS is on track to commercialize fusion and deliver an inherently safe, globally scalable, carbon-free, and limitless energy source,” he said in a statement.
Commonwealth Fusion expects to have its smallest possible reactor built by 2025 thanks to the research that MIT has done on proprietary magnet technology that the company uses to confine its nuclear reaction. In fact, most of the financing will go toward construction of the full scale magnet technology Commonwealth Fusion uses to contain its reactions.
The ultimate goal is to build a fusion reactor that can generate 50 megawatts of energy either as heat or to create electricity using a steam turbine.
But it’s not just MIT. At least 10 other startups also are trying new approaches to fusion power. All of them contend that it’s no longer a tantalizingly tricky science experiment, and is becoming a matter of engineering. If even just one of these ventures can pull it off, the energy source of the future is closer than it seems.
Scientists in China have built a fusion reactor that in November became the first in the world to reach 100 million degrees Celsius. That’s nearly seven times hotter than the sun’s core and the temperature at which hydrogen atoms can begin to fuse into helium.
The achievement by China’s Institute of Plasma Physics at its Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (EAST) is a milestone on the fusion journey, and will provide valuable insights for the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) project, a collaboration between the European Union, India, Japan, China, Russia, South Korea and the United States.
The most promising combination for power on Earth today is the fusion of a deuterium atom with a tritium one. The process, which requires temperatures of approximately 39 million degrees Celsius, produces 17.6 million electron volts of energy.
Deuterium is a promising ingredient because it is an isotope of hydrogen. In turn, hydrogen is a key part of water. A gallon of seawater (3.8 litres) could produce as much energy as 300 gallons (1,136 litres) of petrol.