Once the stuff of science fiction and speculative energy geeks with far-fetched dreams, a new series of studies published in the Journal of Plasma Physics last month, and in conjunction with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, postulates that controlled nuclear fusion might indeed be possible by 2025. The grounds for such a claim are rooted in an experimental project being undertaken by scientists at MIT and in collaboration with a regional technology company, Commonwealth Fusion Systems.
Referred to as the SPARC (Soonest/Smallest Private-Funded Affordable Robust Compact) reactor, the project calls for a unique take on the traditional attempts at designing fusion reactors. Unlike the popular Russian tokamak reactor, whose donut-shaped design creates powerful magnetic fields that harness the plasma’s volatility at temperatures high enough to fuse atoms together (at least 180 million degrees Fahrenheit), the SPARC reactor aims to achieve what has previously been unreachable here on plant Earth: the feat of burning plasma.
Burning plasma is a self-sustaining state in which the heat generated from all fusion reactors keeps the process of fusion going by itself, eliminating the need to continuously supply outside energy. The output of a reactor that achieves burning plasma is estimated to max out at 21 teslas; a number far higher than the globally supported International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) which is not expected to be operational until at least 2035 and is purported to only reach a maximum of 12 teslas. By comparison Earth’s magnetic field can reach limits of 60 millionths of a single tesla).
“Virtually all of us got into this research because we’re trying to solve a really serious global problem,” Martin Greenwald, a plasma physicist at MIT helping to develop the new reactor, commented during an interview for the study group, “We want to have an impact on society. We need a solution for global warming — otherwise, civilization is in trouble. This looks like it might help fix that.”
And indeed with the world facing greater and more expedient climate challenges, it seems imperative that we, as a species, continue to push innovative technologies such as nuclear fusion and the instrumentation that allows them to move from dreams into the desperate concrete of reality.
OTEK, as a dedicated supplier to the nuclear industry, stands ready to meet that challenge with instrumentation that measures up the nuclear promise.
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