MIT spinoff chooses Devens for state-of-the-art, net-energy fusion device | The Harvard Press | News | News Articles

An MIT spin-off is about to begin building a research facility in Devens to house the development of a nuclear fusion device that could revolutionize the way electricity is generated.

Cambridge Commonwealth Fusion Systems announced on March 3 that it has selected a 47-acre site on Hospital Road across from New England Studios for a 165,000-square-foot manufacturing facility and headquarters and 150,000-square-foot research facility in which it will be located intended Build the first fusion reactor capable of generating more energy than is needed to operate. Construction of the facility and headquarters is expected to begin this month.

Suggested Campus for Fusion Devices (Courtesy Photos)

According to a company press release, a compact net-energy fusion device called SPARC (Soonest / Smallest Private-Funded Affordable Robust Compact) will be installed on the Commonwealth campus, which developers hope will be the first to demonstrate fusion can work As a commercial power source, it provides two to ten times the amount of energy needed to keep it running.

Fusion power does not release carbon dioxide and has been touted as a potential clean energy replacement for current coal, oil and gas power plants for decades. The fusion produces a fraction of the radioactive waste that remains in today’s fission reactors and does not produce any materials that can be used to build nuclear weapons.

Commonwealth, a 2018 spin-off from MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center in Cambridge, is among nearly two dozen startups in the US and elsewhere striving to commercialize the latest advances in fusion technology, particularly the availability of what are known as superconductors High temperature wires. Made from materials that can operate at temperatures closer to those of liquid nitrogen (around -200 degrees Celsius), these ribbon-shaped wires allow the construction of more powerful magnets that can contain a self-sustaining fusion reaction in a smaller vessel than previously possible.

Cross-section of the CFS design for superconducting magnets, drawn to scale.

There are still some hurdles left. First, the company has to prove that its new magnet is working as planned. A test is planned at MIT in June. Bob Mumgaard, CEO of the Commonwealth, was quoted in a March 12 article in science magazine that the 2.5 meter high, D-shaped magnet would be the largest high-temperature superconducting magnet ever built. “It’s a big deal,” he said. If the magnet works, “our device works,” a Commonwealth spokesman recently predicted.

Once the magnet is proven functional, Commonwealth will begin building its SPARC reactor to keep it operational by 2025. The magnets for this device are assembled in the manufacturing facility in Devens, while the device itself – two stories up and the area of ​​a tennis court – is built in the research facility. If SPARC does the hoped-for performance, the Commonwealth would become a manufacturer of commercial-grade fusion-powered power plants that could deliver as much energy as a medium-sized conventional system that burns fossil fuels by 2035.

On January 19, exactly 60 days after the Commonwealth’s review requests were accepted, the Devens Enterprise Commission, the licensing authority for Devens, unanimously agreed to give the company permission to proceed, subject to the fulfillment of the 28 conditions that mainly matter relate to the development of the site on Hospital Road and noise reduction. The company has not contested any of the DEC’s requirements.

Although a definitive purchase and sale agreement for the Devens property was pending Tuesday, company spokeswoman Kristen Cullen said Commonwealth expects to lay the foundation stone for its manufacturing and headquarters as early as April. The company will need two additional licenses from the state before it goes live in 2025: one for the storage and use of tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen used to power the reactor, and one for the SPARC device itself.

City officials were briefed on the Commonwealth’s plans by the DEC in November 2020 – as required by state law – but the project first aired publicly only two weeks ago at the March 16 Select Board meeting at Harvard, where Cullen and Tyler Ellis , A Commonwealth scientist explained the project to board members and a small audience through Zoom.

Cullen shared with attendees that the company has grown from 10 to 150 employees since its inception, and she expects employment at the Devens facility to grow to 300 to 500 jobs by 2025. “These aren’t just jobs for MIT plasma physicists and those involved in fusion,” she said. There will be new jobs in manufacturing, engineering and operations. The company is well funded and has $ 250 million Raised by investors including Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, and European energy companies Eni and Equinor.

During the Q&A that followed, Paul Green, a member of the Harvard-Devens Judicial Committee, asked what factors had influenced the Commonwealth’s decision to settle in Devens. Cullen said the company looked at locations in Tennessee, New York, and North Carolina for two years but chose Devens because of its proximity to MIT, despite the lucrative financial incentives offered elsewhere.

The rapid approval process offered by Mass Development is also attractive, she said. “The reason we founded this company is that we want to develop a new clean energy technology and bring it to the world in a period that is really important for climate change. And from all of the reports we read, it’s pretty hard to say that if you don’t get clean megawatts on the grid by 2030, you will be relevant to climate change, ”said Cullen. “You’re a little late.”

Green also wanted to know if the Commonwealth knew his facility would be built on historic Harvard land that could return to the city’s jurisdiction in 2033. Cullen said the company is aware of the problem. “I don’t think we have immediate concerns,” she said. “We’ll watch how things go.”

Selected board member Stu Sklar and Charles Agosta of Bolton Road, a professor of physics at Clark University who has worked with superconducting magnets, had questions about the safety of the research facility, including the storage of tritium, and the consequences of a sudden failure of the Magnetic field of the SPARC reactor. Ellis noted that SPARC would require no more than a quarter-size amount of tritium, which is commercially available and not highly radioactive, to operate in the US. In the event of a power failure, the reactor would shut down in less than a millisecond. “It’s like a fussy machine that wants to be off,” said Ellis.

Agosta later told the press that he didn’t think SPARC would raise any particular safety concerns. He said the company’s engineers would have to deal with the conventional problems of any large facility. A lot of electricity is involved and storing large amounts of liquid nitrogen can be dangerous, he said. But drug manufacturers often have huge tanks of liquid nitrogen outside of their manufacturing facilities. “[The Commonwealth facility] is not a commercial investment. That’s one of the most important things. It’s a research facility. “

Cullen and Ellis predicted that work at Devens would attract scientists and politicians from around the world. But it could also prove to be a great destination for high school and college students, Agosta told the press this week. He would definitely take classes there. “It’s a novel, cutting-edge, possibly world-changing technology. This part is really exciting. “

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