Researchers at the MIT have brought us one step closer to nuclear fusion plants. In fact, that’s many, many steps closer, as the potentially revolutionary idea and design that the scientists have come up with could be built really soon.
Up until now, nuclear fusion reactors have been ginormous contraptions that needed equally large amounts energy to make energy. The problem was that none of the previously proposed larger than life machines managed to produce more energy than they actually consumed. Still, the fact that they had actually producer energy was amazing enough.
Nuclear fusion reactors work by – you guessed it – causing fusion between atoms of hydrogen thrown at each-other at mind-boggling speeds. You may say – wait, isn’t that just how stars get their energy? Well, Mr. Physicist, you’re right. Stars are formed when just such reactions occur naturally in space, and then these reactions generate so much energy that they sustain themselves.
So essentially, by making fusion power plants, we’re creating micro-stars right here on Earth. Incredible it is that humankind has gotten around to harnessing the power of stars, isn’t it? Still, you may think it dangerous. And you would be right to be skeptical.
Fusion reactors would be a jewel for the environment compared to the currently existing plants: typical coal powered plants are like throwing bombs of carbon in the atmosphere. These plants are the worst. Unless you count nuclear plants, which use radioactive elements like plutonium and uranium to generate energy. Still, the people who work them are subjected to dangerous hazards. And the residue is just as dangerous for the environment.
The better alternatives are hydro power plants, which still consume electricity, wind powered plants, and solar panels. The latter two are the most eco-friendly, but are a bit inefficient in that they could never produce the amounts of energy that the modern world is consuming.
Fusion reactors are self-sustainable, like stars. They only need a small amount of energy to start and then maintenance. And besides this, there are no leftover effects: no smoke, no radioactive residue. Except heat. And heat is a big problem.
Up until now, there have been experiments in which nuclear fusion was producing more energy than it itself was consuming, but the cooling system was consuming ten times that energy amount.
The MIT scientists have now come up with a new design, using barium oxide superconductors. The new reactors are half the size of the currently existing models, and could provide energy for 100 thousand people. And what’s more, the nice people from MIT predict a working version could be produced within 10 years. The superconductors would easily contain the fusion through an extremely potent magnetic field.
The study was published in the Fusion Engineering and Design journal.
Image source: phys.org