© Photo credit: CFS
Our collaboration with Commonwealth Fusion Systems
Commonwealth Fusion Systems is a spin-out company of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that aims to accelerate the industrial application of magnetic confinement fusion, having one of the world's most challenging roadmaps for bringing fusion energy to industrialisation. Conscious of the great strategic value of fusion and the soundness of the CFS technological innovation project, Eni first invested in CFS in 2018 and is its strategic shareholder through Eni Next, the group’s corporate venture capital company. On 9 March 2023 the two companies signed a new cooperation agreement to further accelerate the industrial development of ARC, the first plant capable of generating fusion energy. More specifically, in this joint effort, Eni provides its engineering and project management expertise. The agreement also envisages a number of projects currently under development that include operational and technological support for development and implementation, the sharing of methodologies borrowed from the energy industry and stakeholder relations.
Synergy between science and industry
Founded as a startup by a group of researchers and scientists from MIT, the company has generated a great link between scientific knowledge and a dynamic business sector by establishing a partnership with MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center and leading global private investment groups. Eni is a strategic shareholder and actively collaborates with CFS to accelerate the industrialisation of fusion energy. The company, moreover, is on the Board of Directors and ensures its contribution also in terms of resources and industrial know-how. Furthermore, Eni was the first company from the world of traditional energy to support research in this strategic segment for decarbonisation. Commonwealth Fusion Systems relies on an international multidisciplinary team of experts in plasma physics, superconducting magnet development, industrial engineering and energy supply and distribution chains for the rapid design and production of the first power plant for net fusion power generation. The first target is to build and test the first pilot plant by 2025. It will be called SPARC. Its purpose will be to confirm the correct operation of the magnets in toroidal configuration and the achievement of net energy from fusion. It will enable the study of power management and the stability of the plasma, the resistance of the materials in the fusion environment and the fuel injection apparatus. Testing at SPARC will in turn pave the way for the development of ARC, the first industrial-scale plant complete with neutron harvesting and energy generation systems capable of supplying carbon-free electricity to the grid, due to be completed during the first few years of the 2030s. One fundamental result has already been achieved in September 2021 with the testing of the first supermagnet prototype featuring HTS (High Temperature Superconductor) technology: a real breakthrough on the road to the first commercial fusion power plant.
We will see the first CFS power plant based on magnetic confinement fusion come to fruition at the beginning of the next decade, and then have almost two decades ahead of us to deploy the technology and achieve the energy transition goals up until 2050.
A Star in a Bottle: The Quest for Commercial Fusion | Massachusetts Institute of Technology
The supermagnet to confine plasma
temperature the plasma reaches in the reactor
magnetic flux density generated by magnets
temperature at which superconductors operate
intensity of electric current in superconductors
weight of a single magnet
present in a single magnet
in the future SPARC experimental reactor
superconducting tapes in a supermagnet
Full-scale high-temperature superconducting magnet designed and built by CFS and MIT’s PSFC
Collaborative team working on the magnet inside the test stand housed at MIT
Spool of high-temperature superconducting tape used in the new class of fusion magnet
A team of engineers and scientists from CFS and MIT’s PSFC
Director of the PSFC Dennis Whyte and CEO of CFS Bob Mumgaard in the test hall at MIT’s PSFC
Rendering of SPARC, a compact, high-field, tokamak, under design by a team from the MIT and CFS
ReBCO superconductors: the special feature of the technology being developed by CFS
The possibility of using the enormous potential of fusion to produce carbon-free electricity depends mostly on being able to design and build a power plant that can generate more energy than it requires to operate. While the theory has been known to physicists since the 1950s, attempts to apply it in reality have so far come up against a number of challenges. These are first and foremost theoretical ones, linked to the modelling of ultrahigh temperature plasmas, but also engineering ones, such as the need to confine these plasmas to the plant. To achieve hydrogen fusion, you first need to bring the mixture of deuterium and tritium to temperatures in excess of 100 million degrees. No material on Earth can withstand these conditions, so the plasma has to be contained and kept suspended in the reactor. Tokamak technology can be used to do this; it is a doughnut-shaped device that uses an intense magnetic field generated by superconductor magnets to supply the plasma and made to swirl in a high vacuum, preventing it from coming into contact with the walls. Hence the name of the technology: magnetic confinement fusion. The magnets use superconductor technology, which has been available for industrial applications for a long time: in medicine, for example, for MRIs. All superconductors work at very low temperatures, however. Superconductor magnets designed for fusion to date (LTS - Low Temperature Superconductors) use materials that require temperatures close to absolute zero, i.e. -273 degrees Celsius: the absolute limit of temperature at which all matter is perfectly motionless. The utilisation of LTS dictates the construction of colossal machines in order to achieve adequate fusion conditions for industrial development. The superconductor magnets made and successfully tested by Commonwealth Fusion Systems, on the other hand, use an innovative type of industrial superconductor based on Rare-earth Barium Copper Oxides (ReBCO) called “high temperature” (HTS - High Temperature Superconductors) since they require temperatures of a “mere” circa -253 degrees Celsius.
It is this seemingly minor difference of only twenty degrees celsius that allows the CFS-designed systems to make decisive savings in terms of both energy and operational management, making it possible to generate much higher currents for the creation of magnetic fields. This will make it possible to build reactors that are much more compact, simple and efficient than those conceived thus far.
For example, compared to ITER (currently under construction), the SPARC demonstration reactor will be five times less powerful, but sixty-five times smaller and able to operate with magnetic fields that are four times as powerful. In the September 2021 test, the superconductor magnet prototype made by Commonwealth Fusion Systems was subjected to an electric current of 40,000 amperes and generated a field with a magnetic flux density of 20 tesla, a record that demonstrates the strategic importance of this technology in achieving the first fusion reactor.
Unlocking SPARC: HTS Magnet for Commercial Fusion Applications | Commonwealth Fusion Systems
A necessary contribution to decarbonization
The industrial application of magnetic confinement fusion will be a game changer in the process of decarbonization: it will make it possible to generate vast amounts of energy safely, virtually inexhaustible and without any greenhouse gas emissions. The type of power plant designed by CFS, compact and efficient, lends itself to widespread application that can be integrated with renewables where the grid can’t reach. Fusion will also become increasingly important and necessary as we approach the peak of renewable energy expansion, in around 2040, when building more wind and solar power plants will become technically impossible. An assessment by CFS estimates that magnetic confinement fusion could by 2050 contribute 20% of the world’s energy requirements without producing CO₂ or other greenhouse gases, through 10,000 globally distributed plants.
Eni is signed up to the Commonwealth Fusion System (CFS), a spin-out company of MIT.
ReBCO Superconductor magnets
CFS demonstrates that ReBCO-based high-temperature superconducting magnets are capable of generating a magnetic flux density field of 20 Tesla.
New collaboration agreement
Eni and CFS sign new agreement to accelerate the commercialisation of fusion energy.
CFS's SPARC experimental reactor comes into operation, capable of handling and confining plasma and ensuring the achievement of a positive net energy balance.
In the first few years of the 2030s, CFS expects that the experimental ARC reactor, capable of feeding energy into the grid, will come into operation.
Cover image credits: Gretchen Ertl, CFS/MIT-PSFC, 2021
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