Environment & Engineering

Collaborating with Commonwealth Fusion Systems

Published Mar 10, 2022

CO₂ emissions and the associated impact on climate change has meant governments and citizens across the world are thinking about new sources of renewable and non-fossil fuel sources of energy. Fusion energy has long been touted as a way to generate clean and carbon free energy and with the latest development in high temperature superconducting (HTS) materials, this idea is becoming a reality. Wellington UniVentures is supporting the collaboration between Robinson Research Institute and Commonwealth Fusion Systems to deliver the fastest path to commercial fusion energy as the need for clean tech grows.

Commonwealth Fusion Systems is a US start-up spun out of Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Plasma Science and Fusion Centre to commercialise the development of fusion energy. There are a number of challenges that come with developing fusion technologies, so collaborating on efforts to accelerate the process and share data has been crucial to this project.

Fusion occurs when hydrogen nuclei combine to form larger helium nuclei and release vast amounts of energy in the process—it is what powers the sun. Fusion has been in the realm of scientific possibility for many years, but there are several problems that occur when trying to achieve industrial fusion. Firstly, fusion can be achieved in a lab but requires more energy input than what is produced. To date, no one has succeeded in making a net gain controlled fusion device. Secondly, the reactants of fusion are in the form of hot plasma (ten million to a hundred million degrees) that need to be contained. As no container can hold that heat, the plasma needs to be held by a very high magnetic field. Existing materials that can be used as high field magnets were too large or uneconomical for commercial scalability.

The most common and successful method to confine plasma is in the use of a “tokamak” configuration where the magnet forms the shape of a torus (donut). To achieve fusion net gain, a very large reactor or a very high magnetic field (for strong confinement) is required.

International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) project is a global collaboration based in Europe with the aim of building a tokamak and showcasing the feasibility of large-scale net gain fusion power by 2035.

In the last decade, advances in high temperature superconductor (HTS) materials has meant that new smaller HTS based magnets with high fields are now possible. As a result, the opportunity is now ripe to leapfrog the ITER efforts and build smaller but more powerful fusion devices with higher field magnets.

Commonwealth Fusion Systems first connected with Robinson in 2018 to request help in measuring performance of various HTS wires they proposed to use in their demonstration fusion device, SPARC. Robinson’s SuperCurrent Facility made it easier for the teams to conduct measurements and quickly get results, whilst engaging the expertise of Robinson’s researchers. Robinson was chosen over other institutes due to their ability to generate data quickly and accurately.

Given the criticality of the HTS wires to the overall fusion project, CFS then opted to send their own teams to the Robinson Institute and work directly with the local Robinson team. By working directly with the Robinson Institute, CFS have been able to acquire significantly more data, which helped speed up their decision-making capabilities based on measurement results.

The ability to measure a large number of different samples quickly enabled CFS to streamline and refine their testing options and better utilise more expensive testing resources. For CFS, the ability to continuously measure their wire performance was a critical factor for their ongoing quality assurance.

Working with Robinson Research Institute, Wellington Univentures has provided a consulting service for Commonwealth Fusion Systems and supported the development of a successful Department of Energy contract in the US.

Wellington UniVentures is excited about the current and future opportunities to work closely with Commonwealth Fusion Systems to support and enable this critical work in the fusion sector.