Iron Man has a tokamak ARC reactor in his chest. It’s what helps to power his suit and keep him alive. Now no one may have the unique health needs of Tony Stark, but the idea of being able to obtain virtually unlimited energy is something that could benefit all of us. MIT has developed an arc reactor theory that is plausible to the extent that a donut-shaped fusion reactor could be produced by 2025.
With fusion energy resources that small, virtually anything becomes possible. Self-sustaining energy could power spacecraft, replace aging nuclear reactors, and do so without the same threat of radiation.
How Would a Fusion Arc Reactor Work?
Fusion energy is created when atoms of hydrogen are placed under high heat and pressure. When the exposure reaches a specific temperature and pressure, the atoms of hydrogen will begin to fuse. That fusion forms a helium nucleus, a neutron, and a ridiculous amount energy that could be harvested for any number of tasks or needs.
Two kinds of hydrogen atoms are used to create this fusion: deuterium and tritium. Then a gas is injected into the containment vessel, the ARC reactor, to form the reaction. This creates a hot plasma, over 150 million degrees, that can release the energy which was created from the reaction.
Because the plasma is heated to such an extent, magnetic fields are required to keep it off the walls of the chamber. The magnetic fields would be created by including superconducting coils around the rounded shape of the ARC reactor. An electrical current would then be driven into the plasma as it forms to sustain the field.
The Challenge of a Typical Arc Reactor Theory
Before the MIT design for an arc reactor, the primary challenge of creating a fusion reaction has been the inclusion of the magnetic coils. For previous designs, the strength of the magnetic fields was not enough to keep the plasma off the walls, which would eventually cause a catastrophic failure if the reactor should it be operational.
The 2015 MIT design uses superconductors that are manufactured using barium copper oxide, which is a rare-earth element. These superconductors are manufactured into tapes, which creates a stronger magnetic field. The design of the arc reactor is also smaller than other tokamak designs, which means the reactor can be built faster and cheaper when compared to other arc reactor theories.
This means the achievable amount of power from the fusion reaction would be to the fourth power of the increase that the magnetic field is able to achieve. If the field strength could be doubled, then the amount of power the fusion reactor could produce is 16 times greater, allowing for a dramatic increase in useable power resources.
Cost is another challenge which must be met. The MIT design that uses the arc reactor theory is essentially the same design of a larger fusion power device that is being constructed in France. Called ITER, the process was started in 1985 and is a collaborative process to demonstrate the benefits of a fusion reaction through a 35-year process. Although the value of the demonstration of ITER may be priceless should it come online and produce power, the total cost of this one facility is expected to exceed $40 billion.
Why Choose Fusion Energy Over Other Forms of Energy?
With the current arc reactor theory, the massive amount of power generated by the fusion reaction would be environmentally friendly. After the manufacturing process is completed, fossil fuels would not be necessary to create energy. The fusion reaction would not produce any greenhouse gas emissions when operational and there would be no radioactive waste.
Once operational, the ARC reactor would provide virtually unlimited power.
Although the idea of fusion seems to be costly, especially with the final cost estimates of ITER, there are designs which use the arc reactor theory that have a comparable cost to starting a new coal-fired power plant. It would provide a similar electrical output to the more traditional power plant as well.
At this point, however, there has never been a fusion reaction created that has produced as much energy as it consumed, so net energy production is the next step to take in this theory. The updated designs and ideas by MIT suggest that this single reactor, despite its size, could provide power for up to 100,000 households.
For many in this field, the goal is to have fusion energy become active in the 22nd century. With the arc reactor theory, it may be possible to speed up that timeline considerably.