MIT Researchers’ (Relatively) Cheap Fusion

Designing a smaller, cheaper fusion reactor.

An ARC reactor. Whyte says the acronym (“Affordable, Robust, Compact”) isn’t a reference to Iron Man’s power source. Sure.

An ARC reactor. Whyte says the acronym (“Affordable, Robust, Compact”) isn’t a reference to Iron Man’s power source. Sure.

Illustration: Chris Philpot

Innovator: Dennis Whyte
Age: 51
Director of the Plasma Science and Fusion Center at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Form and function
Using new superconductive materials, Whyte’s team has designed a fusion reactor they say should be able to profitably generate grid-scale power using smaller equipment at a much lower cost than current models under development.

1. Materials 
The team’s highly conductive magnetic coil, made from rare-earth barium copper oxide, requires less cooling than coils in other models. This helps reduce the reactor’s volume and weight by a factor of 10, Whyte says.

2. Results
At the size of “a small building,” the reactor’s added conductivity would also double the strength of its magnetic field, upping fusion output by volume 16-fold, Whyte says.

Background
The MIT prototype builds on the design of fusion reactors that use magnetic fields to squeeze superhot plasma, fusing atoms of hydrogen to produce energy.

Origin
Whyte, student Brandon Sorbom, and a dozen others spent about two years working to refine the reactor, which began life in one of his design classes.

Power
At full size, the design could produce an estimated 250 megawatts of electricity, enough to supply power to as many as 250,000 people.

Cost
Whyte’s team estimates a full-size version of its model would cost $5 billion to build, compared with $40 billion for a design under construction in France that’s 10 times as big and has a similar projected output.

Next Steps
Mike Zarnstorff, deputy director for research at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, says Whyte’s team has “a novel set of ideas that require additional R&D.” The team published its research in the journal Fusion Engineering and Design in July. To build a tabletop prototype of the coils, Whyte is seeking $10 million to $15 million from industrial manufacturers and donors.

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