MIT’s Dennis Whyte Wants to Prove Fusion Is the Future

bostinno Olivia Vanni 09/16/15

Whyte and Sorbom of MIT compare superconductor to monstrous copper conductor.

Most of my mornings normally consist of chugging coffee, not chatting about fusion, plasma and superconductors. Then again, most mornings, I don’t have the chance to talk to MIT’s Dennis Whyte, head of the Nuclear Science and Engineering Department, as well as director of the Plasma Science and Fusion Center.

Whyte, in addition to MIT student Brandon Sorbom and a cohort of other students, have been working on a project that could change energy as we know it. Whyte and Sorbom sat down with me to give a crash course in fusion and go over their reactor, which has already proved revolutionary as a concept alone.

“Before I retire, I don’t want the question to still be, ‘Does fusion work?’ Yes, it works.”

An idiot’s guide to fusion

When most individuals familiar with fusion think of these reactors, one thing comes to mind: heat.

Plasma (we’re talking about the fourth state of matter, which makes up the cores of stars) is the basis of fusion reactors, and has to be contained within reactors using magnetic fields.

Not only is plasma itself unfathomably hot, but the conductors normally used to create the needed magnetism in reactors generate their own heat – and therein lies the key issue with fusion energy. So much energy is being used as conductors heat up that it offsets the energy produced in the fusion reaction itself. No net energy means fusion reactions are useless … until now.

Superconductors to the rescue

Whyte and his team have designed a fusion reactor significantly smaller than those of old that could actually produce usable energy. The key is superconductors.

Superconductors are just as cool as they sound. They’re strips so thin and light that they resemble tape more than anything else. Unlike copper wire conductors of the past, superconductors – in the proper conditions – don’t generate heat. As a result, we could theoretically be harvesting all of the energy fusion has to offer, making it the ultimate power source.

What does this mean? “Fusion reactors are intrinsically safe, offer free fuel, unlimited fuel,” Whyte said. “There would be no carbon emissions, so a minimal environmental footprint. The only cost of the electricity generated would come from building the device.”

It’s important to note that Whyte’s compact fusion reactor is only a concept at this point. It is, however, scientifically strong. “Nothing breaks any laws of physics or engineering. It could be done.”

He and his team aren’t holding out to land billions of dollars in grants either. Whyte hopes that the next step is to build a tabletop fusion reactor simply to show that net energy from fusion is possible.

“Let’s make fusion actually do something,” Whyte animatedly explained to me. “Even if it’s heating a tub of water, heating a building – then hurray!”

He believes there are psychological barriers in the scientific community and general population alike. Whyte’s mission is to help the world get over its fusion skepticism. “Before I retire, I don’t want the question to still be, ‘Does fusion work?’ Yes, it works.”

Fusion to go green

If for nothing more, both Whyte and Sorbom want people to open up to the possibility of fusion as a means to renewable energy and sustainability.

In fact, the main reason for Sorbom to go into the fusion field is climate change. “We are environmentalists,” he said.

“We need carbon-free energy on a big scale,” Whyte added. “We need to do something.”

Image via Olivia Vanni