Heating plasma fuel to over 100 million degrees Celsius to create inexpensive and unlimited zero-emissions electricity “has been compared to everything from a holy grail to fool’s gold…” writes the Boston Globe, “or an expensive delusion diverting scarce money and brainpower from the urgent needs of rapidly addressing climate change.”
[N]ow, after breakthroughs this year at MIT and elsewhere, scientists — and a growing number of deep-pocketed investors — insist that fusion is for real and could start sending power to electricity grids in about a decade.
To prove that, Commonwealth Fusion Systems, an MIT spinoff in Cambridge, is using a whopping $1.8 billion it raised in recent months from investors such as Bill Gates, Google, and a host of private equity firms to build a prototype of a specially designed fusion reactor on a former Superfund site in Devens. A host of excavators, backhoes, and other heavy machinery are clearing land there and laying concrete foundations on 47 acres of newly acquired land. “It may sound like science fiction, but the science of fusion is real, and the recent scientific advancements are game-changing,” said Dennis Whyte, director of MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center and cofounder of Commonwealth Fusion Systems. “These advancements aren’t incremental; they are quantum leap improvements. . . . We’re in a new era of actually delivering real energy systems….”
There are now at least 35 companies trying to prove that fusion can be a practical power source, most of them established in the past decade, according to the three-year-old Fusion Industry Association. The promise of fusion was buoyed with significant developments this year. In May, scientists in China used their own specially designed tokamak to sustain a fusion reaction of 120 million degrees Celsius for 101 seconds, the longest on record. In September, Whyte’s team at MIT and his colleagues at Commonwealth Fusion Systems demonstrated that, while using relatively low-cost materials that don’t require a large amount of space, they could create the most powerful magnetic field of its kind on Earth, a critical component of the prototype reactor they’re building in Devens.
“We have come a long way,” said Bob Mumgaard, CEO of Commonwealth Fusion Systems, who compared their advance to similar breakthroughs that made flight possible. “We’re a pretty conservative science bunch, but we’re pretty confident.” With some $2 billion raised in recent years — more than any of the other fusion startups — his company is racing to prove that their prototype, called SPARC, will produce more energy than it consumes in 2025. If they succeed, the company plans to start building their first power plant several years afterward. Ultimately, he said, their goal is to help build 10,000 200-megawatt fusion power plants around the world, enough to replace nearly all fossil fuels. “This is a solution that can scale to the size of the problem that decarbonization requires,” he said.
Phil Warburg, a senior fellow at Boston University’s Institute for Sustainable Energy, disagrees. “Fusion has been an elusive fantasy for a half-century or more,” he tells the Boston Globe. “Along with the technical hurdles, the environmental downsides have not been seriously examined, and the economics are anything but proven… The current wave of excitement about fusion comes at a time when we’ve barely begun to tap the transformative potential of solar, wind, storage, and energy efficiency — all known to be technically viable, economically competitive, and scalable today. The environmental advocacy community needs to focus on vastly expanding those clean-energy applications, leaving fusion to the scientists until they’ve got something much more credible to show for their efforts.”
But Elizabeth Turnbull Henry, president of the Environmental League of Massachusetts rejected the argument that fusion research detracts from investments in renewables as a “false choice…. We’re at a very different moment now, and it’s good to have a lot of different horses in the race.”
The also article notes that officials at America’s Nuclear Regulatory Commission told them federal officials are already holding meetings to discuss how they’d regulate fusion reactors.
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