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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

Additionally, ITER's timetable for completion is 2020, with full deuterium-tritium fusion experiments starting in 2027.

When completed, ITER is expected to be the first fusion reactor to generate net power, but that power will not produce electricity; it will simply prepare the way for a reactor that can.

MIT's ARC reactor is projected to cost $4 billion to $5 billion dollars and could be completed in a four to five years, Sorbom said.

The reason ARC could be completed sooner and at one-tenth the cost of ITER is due to its size and the use of the new high-field superconductors that operate at higher temperatures than typical superconductors.

Typically, fusion reactors use low-temperature super conductors as magnetic coils. The coils must cooled to about 4 degrees Kelvin, or minus 452 degrees Fahrenheit, to function. MIT's tokamak fusion device uses a "high-temperature" rare-earth barium copper oxide (REBCO) superconducting tape for its magnetic coils, which is far less expensive and efficient. Of course, "high temperature" is relative: the REBCO coils operate at 100 degrees Kelvin, or about 280 degrees Fahrenheit, but that's warm enough to use abundant liquid nitrogen as a cooling agent.

MIT fusion reactor
Lucas Mearian

In his left hand, Brandon Sorbom holds a rare-earth barium copper oxide (REBCO) superconducting tape used in the fusion reactor's magnetic coils. In his right hand is a typical copper electrical cable. The use of the new super conducting tape lowers costs and enables MIT to use plentiful liquid nitrogen as a cooling agent.

"The enabling technology to be able to shrink the fusion device size is this new superconducting technology," Sorbom said. "While the [REBCO] superconductors have been around since the late 1980s in labs, in the last five years or so companies have been commercializing this stuff into tapes for large scale projects like this."

In addition to size and cost, REBCO tape is also able to increase fusion power 10-fold  compared to standard superconducting technology.

Before MIT's ARC can be built, however, researchers must first prove they can sustain a fusion reaction. Currently, MIT's C-Mod reactor runs only a few seconds each time it's fired up. In fact, it requires so much power, that MIT must use a buffer transformer in order store enough electricity to run it without browning out the city of Cambridge. And, with a plasma radius of just 0.68 meter, C-Mod has is far smaller than even the ARC reactor would

So before it builds the ARC reactor, MIT's next fusion device -- the Advanced Divertor and RF tokamak eXperiment (ADX) -- will test various means to effectively handle the Sun-like temperatures without degrading the plasma performance.


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