Scientists developing a compact version of a nuclear fusion reactor have shown in a series of research papers that it should work, renewing hopes that the long-elusive goal of mimicking the way the sun produces energy might be achieved and eventually contribute to the fight against climate change.
Construction of a reactor, called Sparc, which is being developed by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a spinoff company, Commonwealth Fusion Systems, is expected to begin next spring and take three or four years, the researchers and company officials said.
Although many significant challenges remain, the company said construction would be followed by testing and, if successful, building of a power plant that could use fusion energy to generate electricity, beginning in the next decade.
It’s impossible to know whether the SPARC design will work but a couple of points are worth considering. The first is they are holding to their estimate of having a prototype up and running by 2024. That at least is a positive. The second is the team behind the project only set the company up because they lost their funding at the old MIT tokomak project. Academics have no incentive to set or exceed deadlines. Commercial enterprises do.
The third is superconductor technology has improved in leaps and bounds since the ITER project was first conceived. That alone suggests faster moving start-ups have the potential to beat the government funded project to the prize of first ignition. Craig Venter won the race to sequence the first human genome using less money and working quicker than the Human Genome Project. Elon Musk developed reusable rockets and collapsed the cost of lifting payloads to space way faster than government backed projects.
Low interest rates make big bets possible. The biggest bets that have the greatest potential to revolutionise productivity are fusion, hypersonic travel and autonomous driving. These are massive capital-intensive projects with uncertain outcomes. When they are eventually delivered, the commercial potential they represent will reshape the world.