Compact nuclear fusion reactor is ‘very likely to work,’ studies suggest

click to enlarge An image provided by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology shows a rendering of the reaction chamber of the Sparc fusion energy macine. Scientists developing a compact version of a nuclear fusion reactor have shown in a series of research papers that it should work, renewing hopes that the long-elusive goal of mimicking the way the sun produces energy might be achieved and eventually contribute to the fight against climate change. - T. HENDERSON/CFS/MIT-PSFC VIA THE NEW YORK TIMES
T. Henderson/CFS/MIT-PSFC via The New York Times
An image provided by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology shows a rendering of the reaction chamber of the Sparc fusion energy macine. Scientists developing a compact version of a nuclear fusion reactor have shown in a series of research papers that it should work, renewing hopes that the long-elusive goal of mimicking the way the sun produces energy might be achieved and eventually contribute to the fight against climate change.
By Henry Fountain
The New York Times Company


Scientists developing a compact version of a nuclear fusion reactor have shown in a series of research papers that it should work, renewing hopes that the long-elusive goal of mimicking the way the sun produces energy might be achieved and eventually contribute to the fight against climate change.

Construction of a reactor, called SPARC, which is being developed by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a spinoff company, Commonwealth Fusion Systems, is expected to begin next spring and take three or four years, researchers and company officials said.


Although many significant challenges remain, the company said construction would be followed by testing and, if successful, building of a power plant that could use fusion energy to generate electricity, beginning in the next decade.

This ambitious timetable is far faster than that of the world’s largest fusion-power project, a multinational effort in Southern France called ITER, for International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor. That reactor has been under construction since 2013 and, although it is not designed to generate electricity, is expected to produce a fusion reaction by 2035.

Bob Mumgaard, Commonwealth Fusion’s chief executive and one of the company’s founders, said a goal of the SPARC project was to develop fusion in time for it to play a role in mitigating global warming.

“We’re really focused on how you can get to fusion power as quickly as possible,” he said.


Like a conventional nuclear fission power plant that splits atoms, a fusion plant would not burn fossil fuels and would not produce greenhouse-gas emissions. But its fuel, usually isotopes of hydrogen, would be far more plentiful than the uranium used in most nuclear plants, and fusion would generate less, and less dangerous, radioactivity and waste than fission plants.

But the hurdles to building a machine that can create and control a fusion plasma — a roiling ultrahot cloud of atoms that will damage or destroy anything it touches — are enormous.

Some scientists who have worked on fusion energy for decades say that while they are enthusiastic about the prospects for SPARC, the timetable may be unrealistic.

Commonwealth Fusion said it would announce a location for SPARC in a few months.

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