Validating the physics behind the new MIT-designed fusion experiment

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Validating the physics behind the new MIT-designed fusion experiment
Rendering of SPARC, a compact, high-field, DT burning tokamak, currently under design by a team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Commonwealth Fusion Systems. It’s mission is to create and confine a plasma that produces net fusion energy. Credit: CFS/MIT-PSFC — CAD Rendering by T. Henderson

Two and a half years ago, MIT entered into a research agreement with startup company Commonwealth Fusion Systems to develop a next-generation fusion research experiment, called SPARC, as a precursor to a practical, emissions-free power plant.

Now, after many months of intensive research and engineering work, the researchers charged with defining and refining the physics behind the ambitious reactor design have published a series of papers summarizing the progress they have made and outlining the key research questions SPARC will enable.

Overall, says Martin Greenwald, deputy director of MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center and one of the project’s lead scientists, the work is progressing smoothly and on track. This series of papers provides a high level of confidence in the plasma physics and the performance predictions for SPARC, he says. No unexpected impediments or surprises have shown up, and the remaining challenges appear to be manageable. This sets a solid basis for the device’s operation once constructed, according to Greenwald.

Greenwald wrote the introduction for a set of seven research papers authored by 47 researchers from 12 institutions and published today in a special issue of the Journal of Plasma Physics. Together, the papers outline the theoretical and empirical physics basis for the new fusion system, which the consortium expects to start building next year.

SPARC is planned to be the first experimental device ever to achieve a “burning plasma”—that is, a self-sustaining fusion reaction in which different isotopes of the element hydrogen fuse together to form helium, without the need