Success for Eni’s super magnet’s test that will control nuclear fusion plasma. Large-scale clean energy is getting closer (expected date 2025).
The first test of Eni’s super magnet, necessary to control nuclear fusion, was a success. This was announced by Eni itself, which participates in this ambitious project through Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS, of which Italians make up the majority of the shareholders), together with the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Boston.
The experiment took place on September the 5th but was validated only a few days ago, according to the collected data, and confirmed the performance of the super magnet which will contain and manage the «plasma» of deuterium and tritium in fusion reactors. The CFS plans to build the first experimental reactor by 2025 and to produce energy for the network as early as the next decade.
Three years of research and design work were then confirmed. A large high-temperature superconducting electromagnet was brought to a field strength of 20 tesla for the first time, the most powerful magnetic field of its kind ever created on Earth. This demonstration helps solve the greatest uncertainty in research, necessary to build the world’s first nuclear fusion power plant. In a historical moment like this one, in which the demand for low-cost electricity without harmful emissions is pressing, this result paves the way for the creation of inexpensive and carbon-free power plants that could make an important contribution to limiting the effects of climate change. This happened after the Minister for ecological transition Roberto Cingolani, during the Cernobbio Forum, returned to talk about the new generation’s nuclear power.
«If it ever turns out that there is very little radioactive waste, high safety and low cost, it would be crazy not to consider this technology» said the Minister, alluding however to the fourth generation’s mini reactors, being also aware that nuclear fusion is still a project. However, «Fusion is the ultimate source of clean energy,» said Maria Zuber, Vice President for research at MIT “The fuel used to create fusion energy comes from water, which is an almost unlimited resource on Earth. We just have to figure out how to use it”. As demonstrated during these days, the Mit-Cfs collaboration is on track to build the world’s first fusion demonstration device called Sparc, which is expected to be completed within four years. Dennis Whyte, Director of MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center, who is working with CFS to develop this reactor, said: “The challenges of achieving fusion are both technical and scientific. But once the technology is demonstrated, it will be a new and inexhaustible source of energy”. Whyte, who is also the Head of Engineering for Hitachi America, says this week’s demonstration represents an important milestone, facing the biggest remaining questions about the feasibility of the project.
To understand the nuclear fission’s difference, which was banned from Italy in the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster, we must remember that we are talking about replicating the process that powers the sun but keeping it under control. That is the fusion of two atoms to make a larger one, releasing large amounts of energy. But the process requires temperatures that go well beyond what any ordinary material could withstand. To capture the energy source of the sun here on Earth means to contain something that is highly hot (one hundred million degrees and more), suspending it in a limbo that prevents it from coming into contact with anything solid that would be melted instantly. This is possible by using intense magnetic fields that form a sort of «invisible bottle» to contain the plasma of protons and electrons. Since these particles have got an electric charge, they are strongly influenced by magnetic fields and the most used configuration to contain them is a donut-shaped device called Tokamak. Conventional copper electromagnets have always been used to create magnetic fields, but the latest and largest version of them, which is under construction in France and called Iter, uses the so-called low-temperature superconductors. In the Mit-Cfs fusion project, the innovation consists in the use of high-temperature superconductors, that allow a much stronger magnetic field in a space reduced by 40 times compared to what would be needed with older technologies.
«It’s a great moment,» said Bob Mumgaard, CEO of Cfs. «We have a platform that is both scientifically advanced, thanks to decades of research on these machines, and commercially interesting. What it does is allow us to build devices faster, smaller and at a lower cost. Bringing that new magnet concept to reality took three years of intense design work, building supply chains, and devising manufacturing methods for magnets that may eventually be produced by the thousands. We have built a one-of-a-kind superconducting magnet. We are now well prepared to start the production of the Sparc”. The next step towards the realization of nuclear fusion will be the construction of a scaled-down model of the planned power plant. If it is successful, it will demonstrate that a nuclear fusion power plant is possible, paving the way for their constriction, certain of having all the energy that humanity needs to keep the planet liveable.
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