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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

After achieving sustainable performance, the ARC will determine whether net power generation is possible. The last hurdle before fusion reactors can supply power to the grid is transferring the heat to a generator.

Feds cut funding

MIT's C-Mod tokamak reactor is one of the three major fusion research facilities in the U.S., along with DIII-D at General Atomics and the National Spherical Torus Experiment Upgrade (NSTX-U) at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory.

MIT C-Mod Fusion Reactor
IPP, Wolfgang Filser A researcher works inside of the Wendelstein 7-X (W7-X) an experimental nuclear fusion reactor built in Greifswald, Germany, by the Max-Planck-Institut für Plasmaphysik (IPP). The reactor, completed in October 2015, is the largest to date.

Throwing a wrench into its efforts, MIT learned earlier this year that funding for its fusion reactor under the Department of Energy (DOE) is coming to an end. The decision to shut down Alcator C-Mod was driven by budget constraints, according to Edmund Synakowski, associate director of science for Fusion Energy Sciences (FES) at the DOE.

In the current budget, Congress has provided $18 million for MIT's C-Mod, which will support at least five weeks of operations in its final year and cover the costs associated with the shutdown of the facility, Synakowski said in an email reply to Computerworld. (Researchers hope to find other funding sources to make up for the loss.)

The PSFC has about 50 Ph.D students working to develop fusion energy. Past students have left MIT to start their own companies or take develop academic projects outside of MIT.

Making sure that scientists and students at MIT can transition into collaborations at other DOE-funded fusion energy research facilities in the U.S. -- especially the two primary facilities: DIII-D at General Atomics in San Diego, and NSTX-U at Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory -- has been "one of the major concerns," Synakowski said.

Over the past fiscal year, FES worked with MIT to establish a new five-year cooperative agreement, beginning on Sept. 1, 2015, to enable its scientists to transition to FES-funded collaborations.

Whyte, however, believes the promise of fusion energy is too important for research to wind down.

"Fusion is too important to have only one pathway to it," Whyte said. "My motto is smaller and sooner. If we can [create] the technology that allows us to access smaller devices and build a variety of them..., then this allows us to get to a place where we've got more options on the table to develop fusion on a faster timescale."

And, Whyte said, the scientific basis for small fusion reactors has been established at MIT.


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