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MIT takes a page from Tony Stark, edges closer to an ARC fusion reactor

Lucas Mearian | Feb. 4, 2016
Fusion reactors, like the one used by Marvel's 'Iron Man', would provide a source of clean, sustainable energy for the world

Fusion research today is at the threshold of exploring "burning plasma," through which the heat from the fusion reaction is confined within the plasma efficiently enough for the reaction to be sustained for long periods of time.

alcator c mod fusion reactor
MIT A look at the exterior of MIT's C-Mod nuclear fusion device. The C-Mod project has paved the way for a conceptual ARC reactor.

Normally, gas such as hydrogen is made up of neutral molecules bouncing around. When you superheat a gas, however, the electrons separate from the nuclei creating a soup of charged particles rattling around at high speeds. A magnetic field can then press those charged particles into a condensed shape, forcing them to fused together.

The 40-year conundrum of fusion power is that no one has been able to create a fusion reactor that puts out more power than is required to operate it. In other words, more power is required to keep the plasma hot and generating fusion power than the fusion power it produces.

Europe's working tokamak reactor named JET, holds the world's record for power creation; it generates 16MW of fusion power but requires 24MW of electricity to operate.

MIT's researchers, however, believe they have the answer to the net power problem and it'll be available in a relatively tiny package compared to today's nuclear fission power plants. By making the reactor smaller, it also makes it less expensive to build. Additionally, the ARC would be modular, allowing its many parts to be removed for repairs to upgrades, something not previously achieved.

What sets MIT's fusion device apart

What MIT alone has done is create the world's strongest magnetic containment field for a reactor its size. The higher the magnetic field, the greater the fusion reaction and the greater the power produced.

"We're highly confident that we will be able to show this medium can make more fusion power than it takes to keep it hot," Whyte said.

MIT arc reactor
MIT Plasma Science and Fusion Center

A cutaway view of the proposed ARC reactor. Thanks to powerful new magnet technology, the much smaller, less-expensive ARC reactor would deliver the same power output as a much larger reactor.

Fusion reactors would have several advantages over today's fission nuclear reactors. For one, fusion reactors would produce little radioactive waste. Fusion reactors  produce what are called "activation products" with the fusion neutrons.

The small amount of radioactive isotopes produced are short lived, with a half life lasting tens of years vs. thousands of years from fission waste products, Sorbom said.


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