MIT breaks new ground on the road to clean energy

Scientists achieve the highest plasma pressure ever recorded.
Alcator C-Mod

The Plasma Science and Fusion Centre of Massachusettes Institute of Technology has recently set a new world record for plasma pressure using a reactor called Alcator C-Mod.

Nuclear fusion has long been heralded as the future alternative to carbon-based energy generation for its potential to power the world’s industries without adding to the problem of pollution. Nuclear fusion is the process that powers our sun internally and scientists attempt to replicate the sequence in small scale inside reactors that simulate the super-hot conditions needed.

But totally successful fusion means getting a greater force output from the reaction than is used to get it going, which has remained persistently out of reach for many years. The culmination of intense pressure, high temperature and time needs to reach a crucial value – at which point the energy reaction mostly sustains itself.

Fortunately, the recent advance made by MIT scientists seems to be a valuable stepping stone to bring about that outcome. Maintaining high pressure has always been a major challenge in the business of achieving successful fusion and MIT’s scientists managed to subject the molecular process to about two atmospheres of pressure, resulting in two seconds of maintained plasma. Though it sounds like an insignificant amount of time, the event resulted in a 16 per cent increase on the previous nuclear record set in 2005.

The MIT engineers used strong magnetic fields to do this – a method which will be used again in future nuclear energy campaigns – and Alcator C-Mod’s ability to reach over 35 million degrees Celsius (approximately twice as hot as the sun’s temperature).

Riccardo Betti, University of Rochester’s Professor of Mechanical Engineering, said, “This result confirms that the high pressures required for a burning plasma can be best achieved with high-magnetic-field [reactors] such as Alcator C-Mod.”

Dale Meade, former deputy director of Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, said, “This is a remarkable achievement. The record plasma pressure validates the high-magnetic-field approach as an attractive path to practical fusion energy.”

Take a look at the inner workings of the reactor that made this possible with the interactive panoramic video below.