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In 2015, a group of physicists at MIT did some calculations to rethink how we're approaching the problem of fusion power. High-temperature, nonmetallic superconductors were now commercially available and could allow the generation of stronger magnetic fields, enabling a simpler, more compact fusion reactor. But the physicists behind the work didn't stop when the calculating was done; instead, they formed a company, Commonwealth Fusion Systems, and set out to put their calculations to the test.
On Tuesday, Commonwealth Fusion Systems announced that it had hit a key milestone on its roadmap to having a demonstration fusion plant operating in 2025. The company used commercial high-temperature superconductors to build a three-meter-tall magnet that could operate stably at a 20-tesla magnetic field strength. This magnet is identical in design to the ones that will contain the plasma at the core of the company's planned reactor.
Giving yourself less than 10 years to solve a problem that an entire research field has been struggling with for decades is ambitious, but it reflects how relevant fusion could be to the climate crisis we're facing. Several of the company's leaders mentioned climate change as an inspiration for their work.
"The vision is simple: Can fusion energy be in time to make a difference to climate change?" said Dennis Whyte of MIT. "That's what everybody on this team was dedicated to going toward. Fusion is the energy source that the world needs, and it needs [it] kind of fast. And we're on the brink of harnessing that for humankind."
Waiting for decades to get to fusion will allow renewable power to expand its current cost advantage over all other forms of energy generation. And the time will give engineers opportunities to learn how to manage the challenges of the intermittency of wind and solar power. In this timeline, fusion risks being irrelevant by the time it's a solved problem.
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