IN TRYING TO EXPLAIN their recent fusion energy breakthrough, Dennis Whyte of MIT and Bob Mumgaard of Commonwealth Fusion Systems reached back to the dawn of aviation.
Fusion could be a life-saver for the planet, producing carbon-free, relatively inexpensive energy with no waste byproducts. It works the same way the sun does, by merging two atoms together under extreme heat to release vast amounts of energy. It’s the opposite of the fission process used by nuclear power plants, where atoms are split to release large amounts of energy.
The potential benefits of fusion are well-known, but containing a mixture of electrically charged particles being heated at 100 million degrees is a major challenge. In an interview on The Codcast, Whyte and Mumgaard explained how earlier this month they successfully developed a high-temperature superconductor electromagnet that requires a lot less space and a lot less heat to contain what amounts to an artificial star.
They said their technological breakthrough gives them confidence that they can now move forward with two new challenges where the science is more straightforward – proving a fusion reaction can generate more energy than it uses by 2025 and developing a commercial-scale fusion power plant by around 2030.
“With the advent of this new technology, there is nothing stopping us from building that first demonstration, the Kitty Hawk moment of fusion, when you see net energy from a system for the first time on earth,” said Whyte, the director of the MIT Plasma Science and Fusion Center.
Mumgaard, the CEO of Commonwealth Fusion Systems, said he wasn’t surprised the company’s recent technological breakthrough failed to gain widespread attention.
“This is a big step and this is a key step, but this is a pretty esoteric step and a pretty esoteric thing, right?” Mumgaard said. “No one can be blamed for not understanding that right away. … We had a big reaction from the people that follow energy technology and the people in fusion. That trend is also a trend that is broadly across all technologies. The beginnings of the change are not apparent to everybody. People talk about the Wright brothers. Actually, they were flying for months before people believed it was true.”
Whyte said the breakthrough came about by thinking outside the box. He said he was frustrated with the slow pace of fusion development and decided his class at MIT would start looking outside the academic bubble for a disruptive magnet technology capable of containing a fusion reaction.
“Let’s take science that we understand, but give it a new tool so we’re going to be able to do it a lot faster and a lot more effectively,” Whyte said.
The class hit on the idea of using newly developed high-temperature superconductors to build the magnet. Mumgaard, who was a student in Whyte’s class, said it’s a lot like what happened with computers. He said computers existed before the transistor came along, but they were big and difficult to use. The transistor allowed computers to be downsized and operate at much faster speeds.
“That’s very similar to what we’ve done with this magnet,” he said. “In this analogy, fusion energy has been studied for a long time. We know what the rules are that govern it, but we haven’t yet put it in the hands of being useful.”
The next step is taking place at Devens, where Commonwealth Fusion Systems is building a fusion demonstration project designed to produce more energy than it uses. Whyte said significant challenges remain, but the biggest hurdle is now cleared.
Mumgaard said the company’s 160 employees from all over the world are very focused on what needs to get done. “From the very beginning, everyone involved knew what it is that we had to do,” Mumgaard said. “That’s actually a rare thing in a startup. A startup is oftentimes looking for the right path to go. It’s either a problem in search of a solution or a solution in search of a problem and we had a pretty good fit on problem and solution from the very beginning. And that’s a unique thing to be in because it attracts other people who want to solve those type of problems.”
Mumgaard said it’s been fun to see how the world has responded to what the company is trying to do. “When we first started out, people thought that’s really audacious and I think that might be borderline crazy,” he said. “Now it’s just seen as audacious and also with a lot of momentum.”