MIT’s Fusion Reactor Breaks World Record, Then Promptly Gets Shut Down

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Andrew Follett Energy and Science Reporter
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An experimental fusion reactor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) broke a world record for plasma pressure the day before it was shut down for budget reasons.

Plasma pressure is the key ingredient to producing energy from nuclear fusion, and MIT’s new result achieves over two atmospheres of pressure for the first time on the reactor’s last day of operation. For fusion power to be viable on the Earth’s surface, the plasma must be more than 50 million degrees and stable under intense plasma pressure. Doubling plasma pressure leads to a fourfold increase in energy production.

While setting the new record of 2.05 atmospheres, the temperature inside the reactor reached over 35 million degrees Celsius, approximately twice as hot as the center of the sun. This result is about 70 percent better than any other fusion test.

“This is a remarkable achievement that highlights the highly successful Alcator C-Mod program at MIT,” Dr. Dale Meade, former deputy director at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory who was not involved in the experiments, said in a press statement. “The record plasma pressure validates the high-magnetic-field approach as an attractive path to practical fusion energy.”

Before it was shut down, MIT’s reactor was the world’s only compact, high-magnetic-field fusion reactor. The reactor shutdown after 23 years of operation and contributed to 150 doctoral theses and dozens of inter-institutional research projects.

MIT’s reactor ran out of money despite a $22.2 million Department of Energy (DOE) grant in 2014 to continue operations, and Congress didn’t allow for anymore funds to go towards the project beyond 2016. The U.S. budget for fusion research has been in terminal decline since 1984.

Nuclear fusion has the potential to produce nearly unlimited supplies of clean and safe power entirely free of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. Fusion is the same process that powers the sun, and reactors can simulate the conditions of ultrahot miniature “stars” of plasma contained within a magnetic field. Companies and governments have been trying to create fusion reactors for decades, since such power would be “too cheap to meter” and drive other sources of electricity out of business.

Despite their promise, fusion reactors in America and around the world have been plagued by budget cuts and technical problems.

America’s flagship experimental fusion reactor at Princeton University in New Jersey broke down earlier this month after $94 million was spent fixing it, and nobody knows what’s wrong. Much of the funding for the repair and upgrade was provided by the Department of Energy’s Office of Science.

Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works group claims to be developing a compact fusion reactor small enough to fit in a truck, which could generate enough electricity to power 80,000 homes.

A U.S. research team claimed in January to have discovered a way to initiate nuclear fusion reactions in a process called “fast ignition” using a high-intensity laser. Scientists believe that “fast ignition”could be a major breakthrough that could allow a fusion reaction to be controlled, because it requires less “start-up” energy than other methods.

German engineers from the Max Planck Institute successfully activated an experimental nuclear fusion reactor and managed to suspend plasma for the first time in December 2015. The German reactor took 19 years and cost $1.1 billion to build. The reactor passed the major technical milestone of generating its first plasma at a temperature of around one million degrees Celsius. It could demonstrate the first stable artificial nuclear fusion reaction sometime later this year.

Fusion power projects have been subject to repeated cost overruns and failures, like the plan to build the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) fusion reactor in France.

ITER was originally expected to cost approximately $5.7 billion, but cost overruns, design changes and rising raw material prices saw the amount almost triple to $ 14.9 billion. The project could end up costing $20 billion.

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