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Materials Science Profiles of Progress – Advances in Metals and Minerals Research May Yield Breakthrough in Quest for Fusion Power

“Thousands of years ago, humans discovered they could heat rocks to get metal, and it defined an epoch. Later, we refined iron into steel, and it changed the course of civilization. More recently, we turned petroleum into plastic, with all that implies. Whenever we create new materials that push the limits of what’s possible, we send the world down an entirely new path.

Today, we’re on the verge of a revolution in materials science that will transform the world yet again. Scientists have developed tools that make it possible to design, build, and shape new ‘super materials’ that will eclipse what we once believed were physical limits, create previously unimaginable opportunities, and expand the capabilities of what we already think of as exponential technologies in ways limited only by our imaginations.”

A few years ago, this is how a Forbes commentator characterized the materials science revolution that is transforming the way we look at metals and minerals.

It is indeed a revolution, and we’re right in the middle of it. 

The latest case in point – and feature in our Materials Science Profiles of Progress series – comes to us via the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which has entered into a research partnership with newly-founded company Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS) to develop a new generation experiments and ultimately power plants based on fusion power – which is hailed as a “potentially an inexhaustible and zero-carbon source of energy.”

The collaborative project has already attracted funding from an Italian energy company and is looking for additional investors. 

Explains David Chandler, writing for the MIT News Office:

“Fusion, the process that powers the sun and stars, involves light elements, such as hydrogen, smashing together to form heavier elements, such as helium — releasing prodigious amounts of energy in the process. This process produces net energy only at extreme temperatures of hundreds of millions of degrees Celsius, too hot for any solid material to withstand. To get around that, fusion researchers use magnetic fields to hold in place the hot plasma — a kind of gaseous soup of subatomic particles — keeping it from coming into contact with any part of the donut-shaped chamber.

The new effort aims to build a compact device capable of generating 100 million watts, or 100 megawatts (MW), of fusion power. This device will, if all goes according to plan, demonstrate key technical milestones needed to ultimately achieve a full-scale prototype of a fusion power plant that could set the world on a path to low-carbon energy. If widely disseminated, such fusion power plants could meet a substantial fraction of the world’s growing energy needs while drastically curbing the greenhouse gas emissions that are causing global climate change.”

MIT and CFS researchers will seek to develop superconducting electromagnets using magnets made from a newly available superconducting material — a steel tape coated with a compound called yttrium-barium-copper oxide (YBCO) within three years, followed by a design and construction phase for a compact and powerful fusion experiment, called SPARC.

According to MIT, the project seeks to run concurrently to and complement the findings of an international research collaboration currently underway at the world’s largest fusion experiment site in southern France, called ITER. 

Researchers are optimistic that a breakthrough is within reach. As Martin Greenwald, deputy director of MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center says: 

“Our strategy is to use conservative physics, based on decades of work at MIT and elsewhere. (…) If SPARC does achieve its expected performance, my sense is that’s sort of a Kitty Hawk moment for fusion, by robustly demonstrating net power, in a device that scales to a real power plant.”

If and when that “Kitty Hawk moment” comes for fusion, yttrium, barium and copper will be key – just as, fun fact, that 1903 Wright Brothers motor was made of copper-aluminum alloy 

Other Materials Science Profiles of Progress:
REE Extraction From Coal
CMI Public-Private Partnership Studies New Ways to Capture Gateway Metals and Critical Co-Products

Researchers Turn to Bioengineered Bacteria to Recover REEs

CMI Announces New Partnership to Recover REEs from E-Waste

CMI Expands Collaborative Research Focus to Include Lithium and Cobalt
DoE’s New Research Center on Lithium Battery Recycling to Leverage Resources of Private Sector, Universities and National Laboratories