Fusion startup designing smaller reactor using new, superconducting magnets

This isn’t the sort of thing we usually focus on but we’ve been talking a lot recently about the Green New Deal and the idea that it’s time for a dramatic shift away from fossil fuels. Even if you don’t believe we have 12 years to save the world, there’s no doubt that abundant, clean energy is an appealing prospect not just here but around the world.

One of the biggest problems with the GND, as Megan McArdle pointed out recently, is that abandoning fossil fuels here in the U.S. would only have a small impact on worldwide demand. In fact, the price might even drop if the U.S. walked away from the market, making oil and gas cheaper and therefore an even more attractive option for developing nations.

In the long run, what is needed is something that is clean, cheap, and safe enough that the whole world is eager to make the switch. One technology that seems to fit the bill is fusion. But there’s an old joke about fusion power: Fusion is the energy of the future and always will be.

Europe has been building a massive experimental fusion reactor in France which began construction in 2013 and is supposed to be completed in 2025. One reason the construction is taking so long is that the ITER is huge. Here’s a recently released drone video of the project which will give you a sense of the scale:

One reason ITER is so large is that the electromagnets used to contain the plasma fuel have to be tremendously powerful, which means making them very large. However, a rival startup here in the United States called Commonwealth Fusion Systems aims to create a much smaller reactor through the use of superconducting magnets that have only recently become available. MIT announced its partnership with the company last March:

The new effort aims to build a compact device capable of generating 100 million watts, or 100 megawatts (MW), of fusion power. This device will, if all goes according to plan, demonstrate key technical milestones needed to ultimately achieve a full-scale prototype of a fusion power plant that could set the world on a path to low-carbon energy. If widely disseminated, such fusion power plants could meet a substantial fraction of the world’s growing energy needs while drastically curbing the greenhouse gas emissions that are causing global climate change…

CFS will support more than $30 million of MIT research over the next three years through investments by Eni and others. This work will aim to develop the world’s most powerful large-bore superconducting electromagnets — the key component that will enable construction of a much more compact version of a fusion device called a tokamak. The magnets, based on a superconducting material that has only recently become available commercially, will produce a magnetic field four times as strong as that employed in any existing fusion experiment, enabling a more than tenfold increase in the power produced by a tokamak of a given size.

This is all still research and there are no guarantees, but the use of the newer magnets seems like a real design advantage over the Euro reactor. Today, NBC News published a new video about the group’s efforts which is worth a look.