A New SPARC of Hope for Fusion Energy

Model of SPARC under design by MIT and Commonwealth Fusion Systems. Rendering by T. Henderson, CFS/MIT-PSFC, via Wikimedia Commons 

A new spark of hope has recently emerged in the field of clean energy technology: the SPARC fusion reactor. Scientists and technicians affiliated with the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have been collaborating on this new fusion energy reactor, which has more promising projections than previous reactors.

Fusion energy provides a carbon-free, abundant power source that is safer than nuclear power with virtually no long-life radioactive waste. Matter becomes plasma by being heated in large cavities to temperatures hotter than the center of the sun. This plasma is then put under pressure to force nuclei collisions that lead to fusion reactions and the subsequent release of energy. This same process occurs in stars, like our sun, to keep them burning. 

Most experimental fusion technologies use tokamaks, large machines with doughnut-shaped cavities, to hold and rotate plasma for fusion reactions. However, as noted by the 2021 FAQ page for the MIT Plasma Science and Fusion Center, no one has yet designed a reactor that produces more energy than required to trigger the fusion reaction.

Inside the Oak Ridge Tokamak in Tennessee. Photo by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

A collaboration between researchers at Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, a DOE National Lab, and Commonwealth Fusion Systems, a startup born at MIT, hopes to solve this problem. The team has developed a fusion reactor with a tokamak-like design that utilizes newly available superconducting magnets. In theory laid out by the SPARC design brochure, the extra strong magnetic fields created by the superconducting magnets could provide the perfect insulation to confine the plasma within the reactor and avoid energy leakage. The extra strength of the magnetic field would also allow the reactor itself to work on a smaller scale than previous tokamak designs, making the reactor faster and cheaper to produce. 

Even so, developing the SPARC model is only the first step. Once the physical structure is successful, the team plans to begin work on creating and operating a fusion plant with large-scale energy production. Currently, only outlines are available, but scientists hope to achieve designs for plants that can produce as much as the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) — the world’s largest tokamak fusion reactor, currently under construction in France — at only a fraction of the size.

Oscar Schwarts states in an interview from December last year that scientists hope to prove fusion is capable of becoming an economically competitive renewable energy source. This portion of the project would mainly be commercial with some input or aid from MIT and the U.S. Government. 

As of now, the timeline projects that a plant could be operating and producing energy for the grid in a little as 15 years, with the goal of 2033. This goal, while possibly seeming far off, would actually be far faster than any existing fusion power initiative. If this proves possible, fusion energy could even encourage energy companies such as utilities or oil gas companies to finally pivot to carbon-free energy, because around-the-clock fusion reactors would be more reliable than intermittent wind and solar power generation. Fusion energy may prove to be a key factor in the universal switch to carbon-free energy.

This article was edited by Anagha Aneesh and Ellen Carlson.