Metro, Newton

MIT Professor Presents Vision of Sustainable Energy Future at Newton Free Library Partnership Event

Dennis Whyte, professor and director of the Plasma Science and Fusion Center at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), said that fusion energy can become a sustainable energy source for the future in a talk co-hosted by the Newton Free Library and Lexington’s Cary Memorial Library last Tuesday.

Whyte focused the talk on his work with fusion energy, the benefits of this alternative energy source, and the obstacles that remain in implementing it on a mass scale. 

“[Fusion] is a personal power source of the universe—so actually what makes all life on Earth possible—because it is the process that powers stars, including our own sun,” Whyte said.

Fusion occurs naturally at the center of stars, where lighter elements combine to change into a different element—primarily helium—that then releases a large amount of energy, according to Whyte. 

Fusion can supply about 20 million times the amount of energy as a chemical reaction, he said.

If scientific leaders can figure out how to harness the energy,  fusion has the potential to serve as an entirely new renewable energy source, as it requires virtually no fuel, according to Whyte.

The first step to capturing this energy requires recreating the 100-million-degree temperature conditions that occur at the center of stars, Whythe said. It is possible to create this environment in a lab with powerful electromagnets, but that presents a contradiction, according to Whyte. 

“The electric current [required to create such conditions] was consuming over 200 million watts of electricity,” Whyte said. “So it was basically like the power consumption rate to power the City of Boston.” 

To get around the issue, scientists discovered how to use a “superconductor” in order to greatly reduce the amount of power necessary to facilitate the fusion energy process, Whyte said.

The superconductor demo project, known as Soonest/Smallest Private-Funded Affordable Robust Compact (SPARC) , is the most powerful electromagnet of its kind. It has the ability to power up to 20 Tesla cars, which is about 400,000 times more powerful than the Earth’s own magnetic field, Whyte said.

SPARC is about 40 times smaller than any technology that does a similar task, which helps to cut down the cost, according to Whyte.

“When it gets really big at some point, that just becomes too expensive to build, and then you can’t basically make electricity or energy fast enough to pay it back,” Whyte said. 

After the success of SPARC, Whyte and the other project leaders at MIT launched the company Commonwealth Fusion Systems with the goal of commercializing the product. 

One of Whyte’s visions for how fusion energy can be integrated on a large commercial scale is by using it as a replacement for coal power plants. The fusion core would replace a coal burner in an existing coal plant, which is easier to implement and more economically efficient, according to Whyte. 

Whyte stressed the personal fulfillment his work provides but also how his work could make a greater difference in the world, especially in light of using the new technology as renewable energy for the entire world.

“At some point, you’re sitting there, and you’re staring at a result and you go ‘No human being has ever figured this out before.’ It’s pretty addictive,” he said. “You can’t imagine a more disruptive technology than this because what it provides is energy safely—clean, inexhaustible for all of humanity forever.”


November 20, 2022