Scientists and engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have made a breakthrough in clean energy.

Last month, the team set a new world record for plasma pressure in Alcator C-Mod tokamak nuclear fusion reactor, based at MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center.

Fusion is the same process that keeps the sun going, and can be recreated in reactors that simulate the conditions of mega-hot miniature “stars” of plasma (or superheated gas) within a magnetic field.

So why is plasma pressure a huge deal? According to experts, plasma pressure is a vital part of the process to produce energy from nuclear fusion, which has the potential to produce nearly unlimited supplies of clean, safe, carbon-free energy.

Successful fusion requires the right combination of pressure, temperature, and time to pass a critical value, at which point the reaction becomes self-sustaining, but so far, it has remained elusive to scientists.

However, the record set by MIT shows that using very high magnetic fields to contain the plasma may be the most promising route to achieving practical nuclear energy.

“This is a remarkable achievement that highlights the highly successful Alcator C-Mod program at MIT,” said Dale Meade, former deputy director at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, who was not directly involved in the experiments. “The record plasma pressure validates the high-magnetic-field approach as an attractive path to practical fusion energy.”

The Alcator C-Mod is the world’s only compact, high-magnetic-field fusion reactor with advanced shaping in a design called a tokamak (a transliteration of a Russian word for “toroidal chamber”), which confines the superheated plasma in a donut-shaped chamber.

“Compact, high-field tokamaks provide another exciting opportunity for accelerating fusion energy development, so that it’s available soon enough to make a difference to problems like climate change and the future of clean energy — goals I think we all share,” says Dennis Whyte, director of the Plasma Science and Fusion Center, and head of the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering at MIT.

Finding a cleaner, safer alternative to fossil fuels couldn’t come any faster, as researchers have earlier this month revealed that the fossil fuel industry’s methane emissions are significantly higher than previously thought.

According to the Guardian, emissions from gas, oil, and coal production were 20 to 60 percent greater than existing estimates.

Unfortunately, the day the record was set was also the last day of the Alcator C-Mod’s operation at the Center. Governments around the world are now putting their fusion funding into a huge fusion reactor called ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor), which will be the largest tokamak in the world once it’s completed. 

Image via Jim Irby/MIT Plasma Science and Fusion Center

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