A joint team of researchers with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and private company Commonwealth Fusion Systems is predicting that they will have a viable nuclear fusion reactor generating electricity and attached to the electrical grid within the next fifteen years.
A recent breakthrough in superconductor technology that involves the use of steel tape coated with a compound called yttrium-barium-copper oxide (YBCO) allows reactor designers to shrink the size of the magnets that contain the super-hot plasma fuel within the reactor, making them more powerful, and thus lowering the amount of energy required to run the reactor.
To successfully fuse hydrogen atoms, they need to be subjected to intense heat and pressure, far more than what is found within the Sun, meaning that large-scale fusion experiments typically ate up far more energy than they produced.
Commonwealth Fusion Systems CEO Bob Mumgaard, says that their "aspiration is to have a working power plant in time to combat climate change. We think we have the science, speed and scale to put carbon-free fusion power on the grid in 15 years." When hydrogen atoms are fused, they form helium atoms, and a small portion of the atoms’ mass is converted to energy, leaving heat and helium as the only byproducts.
Their planned fusion experiment is expected to be 1/65th of the volume of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor currently being constructed in France, and is expected to produce about 100 megawatts of heat — albeit only in 10-second pulses. They hope to reduce the energy input requirements of the reactor down to only half of what it puts out, meaning that the reactor would be viable for clean, non-radioactive, carbon-free electricity production.