October 16, 2016

MIT set nuclear fusion plasma record and proposes two Tokomak designs for vastly faster and lower cost development than ITER

MIT set a new world record for plasma pressure in the Institute’s Alcator C-Mod tokamak nuclear fusion reactor. Plasma pressure is the key ingredient to producing energy from nuclear fusion, and MIT’s new result achieves over 2 atmospheres of pressure for the first time.

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. C-Mod’s high-intensity magnetic field — up to 8 tesla, or 160,000 times the Earth’s magnetic field — allows the device to create the dense, hot plasmas and keep them stable at more than 80 million degrees. Its magnetic field is more than double what is typically used in other designs, which quadruples its ability to contain the plasma pressure.

Unless a new device is announced and constructed, the pressure record just set in C-Mod will likely stand for the next 15 years. ITER, a tokamak currently under construction in France, will be approximately 800 times larger in volume than Alcator C-Mod, but it will operate at a lower magnetic field. ITER is expected to reach 2.6 atmospheres when in full operation by 2032, according to a recent Department of Energy report.

Alcator C-Mod is also similar in size and cost to nontokamak magnetic fusion options being pursued by private fusion companies, though it can achieve pressures 50 times higher. “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, the Hitachi America Professor of Engineering, director of the Plasma Science and Fusion Center, and head of the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering at MIT.

The interior of the fusion experiment Alcator C-Mod at MIT recently broke the plasma pressure record for a magnetic fusion device. The interior of the donut-shaped device confines plasma hotter than the interior of the sun, using high magnetic fields. Postdoc Ted Golfinopoulos, shown here, is performing maintenance between plasma campaigns. Photo: Bob Mumgaard/Plasma Science and Fusion Center

To understand how Alcator C-Mod’s design principles could be applied to power generation, MIT’s fusion group is working on adapting newly available high-field, high-temperature superconductors that will be capable of producing magnetic fields of even greater strength without consuming electricity or generating heat. These superconductors are a central ingredient of a conceptual pilot plant called the Affordable Robust Compact (ARC) reactor, which could generate up to 250 million watts of electricity.

ARC is a ∼200–250 MWe tokamak reactor with a major radius of 3.3 m, a minor radius of 1.1 m, and an on-axis magnetic field of 9.2 T [tesla, a measure of magnetic field strength]. ARC has rare earth barium copper oxide (REBCO) superconducting toroidal field coils, which have joints to enable disassembly. This allows the vacuum vessel to be replaced quickly, mitigating first wall survivability concerns, and permits a single device to test many vacuum vessel designs and divertor materials. The design point has a plasma fusion gain of Qp ≈ 13.6, yet is fully non-inductive, with a modest bootstrap fraction of only ∼63%. Thus ARC offers a high power gain with relatively large external control of the current profile.

This highly attractive combination is enabled by the ∼23 T peak field on coil achievable with newly available REBCO superconductor technology. External current drive is provided by two innovative inboard RF launchers using 25 MW of lower hybrid and 13.6 MW of ion cyclotron fast wave power. The resulting efficient current drive provides a robust, steady state core plasma far from disruptive limits. ARC uses an all-liquid blanket, consisting of low pressure, slowly flowing fluorine lithium beryllium (FLiBe) molten salt. The liquid blanket is low-risk technology and provides effective neutron moderation and shielding, excellent heat removal, and a tritium breeding ratio ≥ 1.1. The large temperature range over which FLiBe is liquid permits an output blanket temperature of 900 K, single phase fluid cooling, and a high efficiency helium Brayton cycle, which allows for net electricity generation when operating ARC as a Pilot power plant.

The MIT group has designed a small demonstration reactor called SPARC, Soonest/Smallest Private-Funded Affordable Robust Compact, that they estimate will cost in the $300M range.

ITER will cost $40 billion, take decades to complete, and is only a science experiment. It will produce 500W of thermal energy but no electricity. Development of an ARC reactor that would provide 500W thermal and 200MW of actual electricity for the grid and would cost less than a tenth of ITER.

The concept for the SPARC, Soonest/Smallest Private-Funded Affordable Robust Compact is to perform a lean targeted project applied to the Tokomak concept.

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