Could a type of fusion technology developed in the 1970’s finally make its way onto the market in the 2020’s?
That is the hope of two upstart companies, General Fusion and Commonwealth Fusion Technologies, that are now being backed by some big capitalist tycoons — specifically Shopify’s Tobias Lutke, Microsoft’s Bill Gates, and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos.
As reported in Popular Mechanics, the two companies are zeroing in on a technology known as Magnetized Target Fusion (MTF). This technology was first developed in the 1970’s by the U.S. Naval Research Lab and involves using hot plasma contained by a powerful magnetic field to both pressurize and superheat it.
What makes MTF different than conventional “tokamak” fusion technologies, such as the famous ITER project in France, is that it does not need extraordinary outside power to kick it into operation. The MTF reactor can simply be pressurized to superheat its plasma from within.
Once it gets going, the process is fairly straightforward. As explained in Popular Mechanics:
“Hot neutrons escape the plasma and are captured in the liquid metal, and their energy powers a heat exchanger to make power. And with a main chamber of just 10 feet in diameter, [the] MTF reactor is considered small for a fusion technology intended to self-sustain and generate power after reaching plasma ignition.”
This new/old approach by these small firms is helpful and may prove to give nuclear fusion its needed boost to become a reality. The ITER project intends to have its “first plasma” by 2025 and then produce commercial electricity by 2035. Whether these newer firms backed by Bezos & Co. can beat the folks at ITER remains to be seen.
For now, fusion remains a promising, but unproven energy source. As Popular Mechanics rightly notes, “the important thing today is that no one, no matter how large or small, has reached plasma fusion that generates more energy than it consumes.”
To read the article in its entirety in Popular Mechanics, click here.
February 4, 2021 at 11:06AM