Dr. Greg Brittles, in an interview with the BBC, talks about how magnets can blow you away with the power they can generate. The prospects of his present project are very exciting. It is the dream of every engineer to face a technically challenging project and at the same time, be immensely significant to the world.
He had finished researching at Oxford University, 5 years ago. Since then, he is currently employed by Tokamak Energy. It is a start-up in the UK that is aiming to manufacture a sustainable fusion reactor.
Magnets Can Harness The Power Of The Stars
Fusion is what powers the stars, as well as our very own Sun. If we could harness the power on Earth, that would be an immense solution to our energy demands. Furthermore, it consumes very little fuel and produces zero carbon dioxide. It would be a revolution if it is made possible.
It is not a very difficult principle to understand. One starts with hydrogen atoms. Then, when enough pressure and heat are added, the atoms will fuse and form helium atoms. During this process, a part of the mass of hydrogen is turned into heat. This heat can then be used to produce electricity.
The difficult part is recreating the conditions on Earth. For the fusion to take place, the hydrogen isotopes have to be heated to several hundred million degrees. At that extremely high temperature, the atoms will break apart because of the energy. As a result, it will form a new whirling matter state known as plasma.
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The main challenge presently is containing this plasma. Stars are of immense size and mass, and hence their gravity does the job. On Earth, however, the method that is most common is using magnetic fields. The fields produced by magnets have enough power to confine the plasma.
The Main Challenge Is Still There
As such, most of the challenge in engineering is building these magnets which will be powerful enough. They must have the power to contain this whirling mass that is insanely hot. At the same time, they cannot use more electricity than what the reactor generates.
Dr. Bob Mumgaard and the Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS) team are also working on this technology. They are going to test a revolutionary magnet that the team claims will make immense progress. The magnet is shaped like a D and weighs 10 tonnes. A person can just about step through the magnet. Inside the D-shape, there is about 300km of a special type of electromagnetic tape.
The tape is also a marvel of engineering. It was in development for decades. It is a tape made of metal on which Barium Copper Oxide (ReBCO) is deposited on thin layers. The oxide is a rare earth and is a superconductor. On cooling, the tape is extremely efficient at conduction electricity. This is of paramount importance as an immense 40,000 amps have to run through the tape. To put in perspective, a tiny town can be powered with the same amount. Of course, “cooling” means that the temperature has to be -235 degrees C. It might seem unimaginably low, but for superconductors, it is rather warm.
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To put it in perspective, Dr. Mumgaard says that the size of the cooling system is small enough to fit in a kitchen. This was a big development from past cooling technologies, which were as large as houses.
But! The Promised Magnets Are Near
At Dr. Brittle’s Tokamak Energy, this leap in the technology for magnets is essential. He is presently trying to build an example in which several powerful coils of magnets will work together. The field created, he claims, is double the deepest underwater pressure. When they become properly functional, they will be housed in a tokamak that is spherical – a fusion reactor shaped like an apple. Research says this is the more efficient design.
However, making fusion commercially viable is the final and biggest challenge. That is what every project is trying to do. Tokamak co-founder Dr. David Kingham claims their technology will be operational by 2030. Presently, it is an international race with millions being invested across the globe.
If this technology for magnets is successful, it will be a defining point in the history of human development. The prize is huge, both financially and as to how the world will be changed.