Thermonuclear energy – the blue dream of scientists and energy companies, can soon become a reality. Physicists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Commonwealth Fusion Systems announced their readiness to create a working thermonuclear reactor within the next 15 years.
Thermonuclear fusion is the basis of thermonuclear energy production. Unlike nuclear fission, which is the process of splitting the atomic nucleus into two (rarely three) nuclei with close masses, during which energy is generated, nuclear fusion makes it possible to obtain energy in the synthesis (fusion) of heavier atomic nuclei from lighter nuclei (for example, from hydrogen into helium). If in the first case we are talking about the principles of work, for example, nuclear power plants, in the second we talk about processes similar to those that occur in the bowels of stars, including inside our Sun. Nuclear fusion can produce heat of several hundred million degrees Celsius. And this heat, scientists say, can be turned into a huge amount of electricity.
Scientists have been working on the development of thermonuclear reactors since the 1940s. But every time science faces the same problem, which is on the way to obtaining clean energy – it is very difficult to create a reactor capable of withstanding the calculated load, let alone exceeding it.
At the moment, the most promising version of the thermonuclear design The reactor is a tokamak – a toroidal chamber with very powerful magnets. These magnets create a very strong magnetic field inside the chamber that holds the hot plasma and thus provides the conditions necessary for the flow of controlled thermonuclear fusion.
Physicists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are working with Commonwealth Fusion Systems to develop a compact SPARC tokamak capable of generating 100 megawatts thermal energy. This heat energy will not be converted into electricity, but will be used to create 10-second pulses, the energy level of which is enough to supply, for example, a small town. If the experiment proves successful, the scientists will create a larger reactor that generates 200 megawatts.
The compact tokamak will be based on very powerful superconducting magnets of yttrium-barium-copper oxide (YBCO), capable of generating a magnetic field of record strength. For example, a YBCO magnet created by the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory creates a field strength of 32 references. In addition, a high-temperature superconductor is capable of operating at a high temperature of 77 kelvin (-196.15 degrees Celsius), while most superconductors from other materials operate at temperatures close to absolute zero (-273 degrees Celsius).
Not only MTI is currently looking for a solution to the problem of thermonuclear energy. For example, in December 2017 it was reported that the international thermonuclear experimental reactor ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, ITER) was built in half. According to Bernardo Bigot, the project's general director, the installation is planned to be launched in 2025. The British company Tokamak Energy is also testing the ideas that can be applied on larger reactors.