Reactors powered by miniature stars brought to Earth and spaceships hurtling toward interstellar destinations, driven by an inexhaustible energy source.
It may sound like science fiction, but scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) say they are in striking distance of the first big step to a radically new energy future, harnessing the immense power of nuclear fusion.
A collaboration between MIT and Massachusetts startup Commonwealth Fusion Systems is poised to start work this summer on SPARC, a fusion test reactor.
If all goes well, a full-scale, power-producing fusion plant—one that mimics the way the sun generates energy while reducing carbon emissions to zero—could hit the electric grid a little more than a decade from now, researchers say.
Yet this sci-fi-like story could have very down-to-earth implications for the construction and engineering sectors across the United States and the world, sparking demand for an array of contractors and skilled tradesmen and women, from electrical workers to carpenters and pipefitters.
“Fusion can produce much more energy than we need,” said Ranganathan Gopalakrishnan, a mechanical engineering professor at the University of Memphis in Tennessee.
“It could become our dominant energy source. You have captured a sun—you will have all the energy you need,” added Gopalakrishnan, who is involved in his own research project around the use of nuclear fusion to generate power.
Closer to reality
While research into nuclear fusion has been going on for decades, recent developments at MIT may signal a long-awaited breakthrough.
Nuclear fusion replicates the process that happens inside the sun and other stars, in which two atomic nuclei are fused, releasing tremendous energy.
Unlike fission, which involves splitting the atom, a fusion reaction generates comparatively little waste, with hydrogen isotopes fusing to form helium.
A nuclear fusion reactor would use electromagnetic waves or other methods to induce a fusion reaction, heating up a mass of burning plasma inside the plant’s core to temperatures as high as 180 million degrees.
Scientists at MIT have developed a new breed of high-field, high-temperature superconducting magnets they believe could solve a longstanding technical issue with building a fusion reactor—how to keep the superheated plasma in place and away from the reactor’s walls.
The superconductor magnets, in turn, could pave the way for significantly smaller and less expensive reactors than had been anticipated.
The planned SPARC test reactor is likely to cost a fraction of the $22 billion ITER project, an internationally backed nuclear fusion test reactor under construction in France that, when complete, will be the size of a hockey stadium.
The science behind the MIT-led project was laid out in full in September 2020, in the form of seven research papers published in a special issue of the Journal of Plasma Physics.
Forty-seven researchers at a dozen different institutions detailed the “theoretical and empirical physics basis for the new fusion system,” according to a story published by the MIT News Office.
“This work is a potential game-changer for the international fusion program,” Chris Hegna, a professor of engineering physics at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, said in the piece.
An energy revolution
MIT researchers and fusion startup CFS are now on the hunt for dozens of acres on which to build their test reactor, SPARC, a search that is focused on the Northeast.
While a site has yet to be announced, construction is tentatively slated to begin in June 2021, with Commonwealth Fusion having raised $200 million.
If SPARC proves successful, the 2030s could be a watershed in world history, with the emergence of a new, clean energy source that could truly put an end to the long-running, climate-altering reign of fossil fuels.
While renewables like solar and wind are expected to play a major role in the transition, nuclear fusion could make it possible for another great leap forward in technology, dramatically boosting the amount of energy available in a sustainable way.
“We have a lot of climate challenges,” said Leo Holland, a director and senior advisor at General Atomics. “A hundred years from now, we may need way more energy than we are generating now. If you need three or four times more energy per capita than what we are producing now, where am I going to get that kind of scale? Nuclear fusion would provide the source you need.”
That could open new possibilities in everything from carbon-free generation of electricity to deep space exploration.
Armed with funding from NASA and other agencies, Princeton Satellite Systems is researching Direct Fusion Drive rockets far faster than even today’s most advanced propulsion systems, reducing the trip to Saturn to two years, down from the nearly seven it took NASA’s Cassini spacecraft in the early 2000s.
A workable fusion reactor, in turn, could lead to construction of electricity-generating fusion plants across the country and the world as cities convert to the new power source.
While certainly the machinery inside the reactors would require specialized manufacturing techniques, electrical and concrete contractors would be in high demand, as would engineering firms, experts say.
“Almost every major city in the country and world would want to have one,” said the University of Memphis’ Gopalakrishnan.
There are no estimates for how many construction jobs would be needed to build fusion reactors, but traditional fission reactors provide a rough template.
During peak construction, each fission plant requires up to 3,500 construction jobs, including carpenters, electricians, sheet metal workers, masons, heavy equipment operators and pipefitters, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry advocacy group.
While the source of energy would be revolutionary, the way the reactors would be constructed would not be dramatically different from today’s power plants.
“The way they are constructed will not be unique,” said Brandon Sorbom, CSO at Commonwealth Fusion Systems, noting fusion would provide the heat source “for a working fluid that powers a turbine.”
“This means we are able to take advantage of existing infrastructure, workforce and construction companies that have experience building traditional power plants that can easily transition to build future fusion power plants,” Sorbom said.
That said, contractors with experience working on nuclear plants in the U.S. and globally would be in particularly high demand, Gopalakrishnan said.
Advanced construction techniques may also be needed, such as embedding concrete or other materials in the reactor’s shell with highly sophisticated monitors that can both transmit data and have the ability to self-repair, he said.
Contractors who currently work in the field of nuclear power plant construction—a dwindling number in the U.S., with the drop in construction of traditional fission plants—would certainly have transferable skills that could give them an edge.
“They already have a lot of experience in working with a lot of delicate systems that give you a lot less margin for error,” Gopalakrishnan said.
Of course, it could take longer for the nuclear fusion revolution to come to pass, with MIT having a more aggressive timeline than other researchers.
Fusion experiments at the vast ITER project, which the U.S. and dozens of other nations are helping finance, aren’t slated to begin until 2035, if all goes well.
General Atomics’ Holland sees nuclear fusion achieving liftoff somewhere between the 2040s and 2060s, with an earlier date dependent on a big increase in U.S. government research funding beyond the already sizable amounts committed today.
“It’s a long horizon,” Holland said. “If we can work a little faster, we can move those construction plans one or two decades to the left.”
Yet as research into nuclear fusion gains momentum in the U.S. and around the world, it is likely to lead to an escalation in demands for construction services well before the first test reactor comes online.
The SPARC test reactor project alone is expected to cost $500 million to build, with the need for various research and headquarters facilities as well once a site is found.
And if Commonwealth Fusion Systems, the MIT-backed startup, has its way, that waiting period may not be anywhere as long as some in the industry anticipate.
“CFS envisions thousands of fusion power plants providing electricity to the world,” said Kristen Cullen, a company spokesperson. “Our goal is to have the first fusion power plant on the grid by the early 2030s.”