Physics Students Visit Tokamak Plasma Fusion Reactor at MIT

Three faculty and 20 students visited the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to see a decommissioned Tokamak Plasma Fusion Reactor last Friday. The trip, which occurred during Grandparents Weekend, was organized by Louis Zinterhofer, pathologist and grandfather of Will Zinterhofer ’19.

Though the Tokamak Reactor has not been in use for two years, the group took a tour of the facility, learned about the machine’s functions, and visited the space where MIT had conducted fusion experiments.

“What we didn’t realize was that it hasn’t been used in a few years, and what they are doing now is tests to building the new plasma fusion machine basically, but slightly different than what they already had,” said Tracey Golini, Instructor in Physics.

Golini continued, “What they’re trying to do is use magnetic fields to create fusion, and eventually what they did there for years and years and years, is just test it out in this old room that was actually surprisingly small. We thought it was going to be this huge thing, like the size of [Paresky Commons].”

MIT recently announced plans for a new fusion reactor, SPARC, built in collaboration with private companies. Work on the new SPARC fusion reactor will be headed by Dennis White, Director of the Plasma Fusion and Reaction Center at MIT, according to the MIT news site. Team members estimate that the machine could be completed within the next 15 years.

Attendee Neena Goldthwaite ’20 said, “The whole goal of it is to use fusion to produce energy. And that would be a really sustainable way to do it, because it just requires heavy hydrogen, which is just found in saltwater. So it’s an infinite source.”

The new SPARC fusion reactor will function at extremely high temperatures, a significant advancement for the technology, according to Will Zinterhofer.

“The main thing that was different about the new project that they are doing is the superconducting material that they are using for the magnets. It can now run up at much higher temperatures than before. So that’s really the turning point, this is the big thing that they’re doing now,” said Will Zinterhofer.

Golini added, “High temperatures that are about the same temperatures and the temperatures in the Sun. So he talked about how if the plasma hit that walls of the machine that it damages the machine.”

To combat and withstand such temperatures, the SPARC reactor will be designed with a new superconductive metal.

Will Zinterhofer said, “They wouldn’t tell me what material they were making the superconducting material out of, but I think that’s gonna be the real game changer…If this fusion reactor works, I mean, which seems like there is a very high chance of working, it could be the next big step in energy.”

Nuclear fusion energy, a cheaper alternative to other sources of a renewable energy, also leaves behind less waste.

Golini said, “If you go to a nuclear reactor, there’s nuclear waste, and there’s the particles that are sort of what we would call the waste, or the excess. What’s left over from this type of fusion reaction, they’re not as harmful and… after they do this for a long time they can basically close the room off and let it just sit for a while and everything that’s waste would be absorbed.”

Though SPARC is still far from completed, the promise of a new source of renewable energy excites attendee Hosshini Suraj ’19 and Will Zinterhofer.

“We talked about how in a few years we will be able to produce energy on its own, which I think is a really big problem today, and we are always trying to develop cheaper ways to produce energy like that,” said Suraj.

“It was just so cool to be in the presence of the minds working on that,” said Will Zinterhofer.