Every year, the Plasma Science Center at MIT holds an educational outreach day. Due to some really good luck this time, we were allowed to bring a crew! Read what they had to say about the day.
Wes Miles '18:
Previous to the tour today of the Alcator C fusion reactor, I figured that clean energy would be obtained by harnessing the power of the sun. When in fact this reactor is creating our own star right here on earth. The carefully calculated angles in which the fuel and energy is pushed into the reactor is extremely precise. In order to retain the plasma in a toroid shaped reactor, the magnets help keep it contained but the angular injection of the energy and fuel keeps the plasma from touching the sides. This is integral to maintaining maximum energy output in the reactor despite the technology not being fully efficient currently.
Nathan Hazlett '18:
The aspect about the MIT field trip I found most resonated with me was Dr. Golfinopoulos’ ending remarks about his research. Although his studies of nuclear fusion consume much of his time and effort, he said his patience is well rewarded. He stated his research is driven by his concern for the increasingly important problem of climate change, something which affects all of humanity. Nuclear fusion would be a sustainable, clean, and cost effective energy source, and his discoveries will potentially affect people around the world. The notion of engaging in science for the benefit of humanity was really inspiring to me.
Corey Logan '19:
I felt that the trip was very interesting due to the speakers they chose to present to us. I felt Alex was very knowledgeable on his material and introduced the topic very well even knowing that I have past experience with fusion information. However, what I primarily learned that the best way forward for fusion research is a higher density and smaller reactor. Unlike the large ITER reactor which is supposed to hit all time high at power production, but which also has a ridiculous budget and is incredibly complicated to build. Lastly I learned that superconductors are an extremely integral part of not just fusion but all science and technology fields.
Alex Rizza '18:
On today’s I would say one thing I learned is the capability of knowledge exemplified at mit. Everyone knew the content they explained and promoted to an exceptional level. Alex taught me a very basic yet understandable way of looking at plasma and the capability of energy that it entails. I learned the technicalities of the torus and the tokamak design. It was cool to see the alcator mod 3 and here of its achievements. I learned the possibility of power we as a nation could produce if we can learn and master such a state of matter.
Bryan Penney '18:
On Thursday, at MIT, I learned about tokamaks and how they use magnets to trap the plasma in a tank long enough for fusion to take place. Alex's research introduced me to the Alcator C-Mod, which is the tokamak at the MIT Fusion Center. I was also impressed with how little fuel is required to power such reactions, while still producing usable energy. I now know there is technology more efficient than it around the world. It is good to see advanced forms of producing energy expanding worldwide.
Michael Finnegan '18:
I hadn’t been to MIT since 7th grade, when I took a field trip to a laser demonstration. At that time, very little science was related, but I found that they presenters related the science to us in an intelligent, interesting manner. My favorite facet of the field trip was the tour of the fusion reactor, the Alcator C. Prior to today, I had very little knowledge of fusion and thought that it was a technology years away, but I learned that it was already possible, just in an inefficient form. Hopefully I will get to take another tour of the lab after they achieve breakeven.
Some photos of our trip, courtesy of Arty: The Plasma Physics research center actually consists of many labs in different areas around the center. Here, the high density plasma group runs a small linear accelerator that they use for testing sensors and other equipment. That way the group can see how materials will react to the harsh conditions created by the plasma in the Alcator-C reactor.
Creating limitless, clean, renewable energy on earth by harnessing the power of the sun. This has been the goal of MIT's Center for Plasma Physics since it began in 1976.
On our recent visit, we found out that this goal has gotten closer than any of us realized.
Alcator-C is the beast that for thirty years was the center of the research done by the Plasma Physics Group. C-Mod is the third in a series of fusion reactors that began in the 1970s. The word "tokamak" is an acronym made by the Russian research group that built the first machine of this type. We learned a few of the systems inside of the Alcator machine - for a 3D virtual reality tour, click here - most common types of VR glasses are supported.
On the one hand, plasmas are the most common form of matter in the universe. On the other hand, they're not - at least not where we live, and that's probably a good thing! We learned that plasmas are a fourth state of matter, made up of charged particles. Suns are all made of plasmas, as are lightning, the gas inside of fluorescent light fixtures, and the fuel that could power this reactor some day. In theory, the idea is simple - squeeze atoms together so hard that they fuse, just like atoms do in the sun.
On earth, though, making it happen is extremely tricky - the behavior of plasmas is one of the main areas of research at the Center, and they use sophisticated computer models along with experiments to try to understand better how plasmas interact with radio waves used for heating the plasma, the plasma itself, and the walls of the machine.
ARC - Beyond SciFi
About the ARC reactor - the next big design for MIT's plasma physics group. The group was quick to tell us that they picked the name "ARC" years ago, before Marvel Comics claimed it as Tony Stark's invention! The group has high hopes for ARC, and as Brandon explains in the video, has some new technology that it believes can make the next leap the one that truly changes the game.
In the part of the program that explained some of the developments in cryogenics - the science of the super cold, we learned about a new superconductor, called ReBCO. The ribbons of this material, when cooled to liquid nitrogen temperatures (77K) conduct electricity so well that each scotch-tape sized ribbon could replace a copper bundle of wire more than 1" thick. As Brandon explains in the first ARC video, this change is at the heart of the group's plans to make fusion a reality in the next decade.