MIT fusion reactor gets restarted

Credit: Wiki Commons

Many scientists believe that the future of clean and renewable energy could come from nuclear fusion. Fusion almost seems too good to be true: unlimited energy without pollution or the risk of dangerous situations like meltdowns. In fact, if we learn to harness nuclear fusion, we could also use it to power space travel, giving us a faster way of getting to planets like Mars. MIT invested in its own nuclear fusion reactor over 20 years ago, but that reactor was shut down last year, due to its funding being pulled by the Obama administration. But now, MIT’s Alcator C-Mod reactor is running again, thanks to some serious lobbying to restore part of its budget.

Nuclear fusion is very different from nuclear fission (which is how the current generation of nuclear reactors generate energy). Fission gets its energy from separating atoms, which results in a lot of waste and the potential for meltdowns. Fusion is the opposite: atoms combine or fuse with each other at very high temperatures. This process leaves out a neutron, creating more than a million times more energy than you'd get from burning a single molecule of natural gas. It’s clean, renewable, and environmentally-friendly, so harnessing such power would be the breakthrough of the century.

There’s just one problem, though. Although the U.S. currently has three nuclear fusion reactors, all in testing mode, not a single one has been able to generate more power than it consumes. And something like MIT’s 20-year-old reactor seemed archaic, at least to the Obama Administration, which pulled its budget last year. After extensive lobbying and arguments about how the MIT reactor’s results are necessary for newer experiments with fusion (including the internationally-funded ITER tokamak fusion reactor in France) and how it could have substantial economic benefits for the U.S., as well as keep the U.S. up with scientific progress across the world, Congress agreed to restore its budget, giving it $22 million, enough to keep the reactor running until 2016.

A huge celebration occurred this week after the reactor was restarted by a button push from Senator Elizabeth Warren, one of the loudest supporters of the project. “It’s ground-breaking research that could lead an energy revolution,” she said. “This was not about politics. This was about good science.”

Via Boston Globe

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