It will be a bit too big to fit in the chest plate of that sweet cosplay armor you just finished, but in every other respect it’s like something straight out of Iron Man: the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is designing, and plans to build, an Affordable, Robust and Compact hydrogen fusion reactor.
To make fusion happen, we need to be able to fuse subatomic particles together to extract their energy. For that we need plasma. That’s protons and electrons in equal proportions as a superheated gas – but the subatomic particles are so hot that they can’t form back into hydrogen atoms. Keeping all this from simply vaporizing anything it touches is easy. All you have to do is keep it from touching anything. That’s why you need an incredibly strong magnetic field to contain the particles, because nothing else could safely hold plasma.
The ARC reactor uses essentially the same Tokamak design most other fusion reactor projects use, but with a difference. New commercially available superconductors made of rare-earth barium copper oxide can be used to create a vastly stronger magnetic field in a much smaller space. The ITER reactor being built in France is about a kilometer in circumference and measures about 400m in diameter. MIT’s reactor would be only about 3.3 m across and a bit over a meter tall, and is expected to produce about 270MW of electrical power, or about three times what it consumes itself sustaining the reaction. The new superconduction technology will also help with the heat buildup problem. allowing the reactor to be run continuously. As things stand now, most working fusion reactors can only run a few seconds before the coils overheat.
The advantage in a stronger magnetic field is more than just simple field efficiency. While most characteristics of a system tend to vary in proportion to changes in dimensions, the effect of changes in the magnetic field on fusion reactions is much more extreme: The achievable fusion power increases according to the fourth power of the increase in the magnetic field. The new superconductors are strong enough to increase fusion power by about a factor of 10 compared to standard superconducting technology.
Two more key advances in the new design are a method for removing the fusion power core from the donut-shaped reactor without having to dismantle the entire device, and that most of the blanket materials used to surround the fusion chamber in this design are liquids rather than solids – which means they can be replaced without tearing down the whole reactor to do it.
The design could produce a reactor that would provide electricity to about 100,000 people.
The research was supported by the U.S. Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation.
Tony Stark would be proud.
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