Superconducting Magnets Provide Breakthrough in Fusion Production

Juan Jazo
February 27, 2019

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2018


Fig. 1: Illustration of what is happening during a fusion reaction at the molecular level. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Within the domain of nuclear power are two primary mechanisms for extracting energy from the nucleus of an atom: fusion and fission. The distinction between the two processes is straightforward, during a fission reaction, a large atom such as Uranium or Plutonium is split into a smaller atom releasing energy in the process. A fusion reaction, on the other hand, involves collisions between small atoms such as hydrogen or helium at extreme velocities to create larger atoms, as seen in Fig. 1. Fusion reactions drive energy production within stars and are the fundamental energy source of the universe, however they are immensely difficult to recreate on earth. [1] This is because nuclear fusion only produces positive net energy output at extreme conditions like hundreds of millions of degrees Celsius. [1] Consequentially, nuclear fission has historically been the more popular method of nuclear energy production around the world. Nuclear fusion, while having a higher energy production potential, is not as well understood and its development faces substantial engineering obstacles. However, this has the potential to change as researchers from MIT have found an innovative technique for sidestepping many of the current limitations keeping us from utilizing nuclear fusions energy potential.

Progress at MIT

Breakthroughs stemming from a partnership between MIT and Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS), a private company, could put reliable nuclear fusion energy production within reach in the next two decades. CFS has donated $30 million dollars to MIT researchers in hopes of developing less energy-intensive methods of reaching "ignition", or the point at which a fusion reaction becomes self-sustaining. [2] They have since developed a novel approach of containing fusion reactions that involves the use of superconducting magnets. The magnets utilize rare earth metals which when operated at temperatures around 40 degrees Kelvin allow electrons to easily pass through, producing magnetic fields strong enough to hold the reactions gaseous combination of subatomic particles in place. [2] The researchers aim to create a prototype capable of generating 100 MW of electricity to illustrate the feasibility of their design. If the team is able to demonstrate successful nuclear fusion, the widespread commercial deployment of the technology could come quicker than previously thought. [2]

Advantages of Fusion

Nuclear fusion is an attractive source of energy because of the enormous energy production potential combined with zero carbon emissions. [1] As global energy demands increase and the consequences of fossil fuel combustion worsen, the adoption of less carbon-intensive energy production is becoming increasingly critical. Nuclear fusion has long been thought of as an unrealistic method of energy production due to the numerous engineering challenges it poses, however with the advancements made by the team at MIT and CFS, commercial fusion is becoming more feasible. There are currently many global initiatives with the goal of attaining economical energy production through fusion, and with continued investment in fusion research, the technology can become a significant part of a climate saving solution, and pave the way towards a zero emission, sustainable future. [3]

© Juan Jazo. The author warrants that the work is the author's own and that Stanford University provided no input other than typesetting and referencing guidelines. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] C. S. Chang et al., "Fast Low-to-High Confinement Mode Bifurcation Dynamics in a Tokamak Edge Plasma Gyrokinetic Simulation," Phys. Rev. Lett. 118, 185001 (2017).

[2] B. Gellerman, "MIT Aims To Bring Nuclear Fusion To The Market In 10 Years," WBUR, 9 Mar 18.

[3] K. Chang, "Machinery of an Energy Dream," New York Times, 17 Mar 14.