Nuclear Energy Scientists Think They've Solved the Mystery of Building Efficient Fusion Power Plants

Every commercial nuclear power plant on the planet right now runs on fission, splitting giant atoms into smaller ones and harnessing the energy that break-down releases. But there's another way to make nuclear energy—fusion, smooshing two tiny atoms together. And scientists at MIT are launching a new fusion power initiative that they say means an efficient power plant is now only about 15 years away from reality.

Nuclear scientists have been interested in fusion for decades: It's the very same process happening in our sun. But scientists have struggled to mimic fusion here on Earth because without the incredibly hot temperatures on the sun, the process isn't very efficient—atoms don't want to merge together, and forcing them to do so at cooler temperatures requires more energy than the process produces.

03_09_sun_nuclear_fusion Nuclear fusion plants imitate the same processes happening on the sun. NASA/Trace

That's the challenge that the MIT team thinks they can finally tackle, thanks to a new kind of tiny, super-powerful magnet that can trap hot plasma—the same charged particles that make up the sun—floating in air. That would means scientists don't need to build a container that can withstand the high temperatures that make fusion efficient.

The scheme relies on building magnets coated with a special compound called yttrium barium copper oxide. It's not a new compound, according to Fast Company, but until now the only form of it scientists could make was a powder that wasn't good for much.

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The MIT team thinks they can use new procedures that turn it into a tape-like structure to create coated magnets within about three years. Then, they want to build a small fusion experiment using those magnets, which they would use to prove that the system can produce heat.

Other nuclear experts are skeptical that the team will actually be able to turn these experiments into a plant that could actually produce energy at a commercially meaningful rate within 15 years. They're dubious partially because fusion has a long history of being "just around the corner." But if the MIT team can make it a reality, it could be a key step in moving beyond carbon.