Second chance for Alcator C-Mod reactor

Nuclear fusion has been stirring our imagination for years, giving us hope for an inexhaustible and safe source of completely green energy, but for now we are approaching it with very small steps. Interesting news is now coming from the US, as the White House has decided to reactivate the Alcator C-Mod reactor at MIT.

Second chance for Alcator C-Mod reactor

Nuclear fusion has been stirring our imagination for years by giving us hope for an inexhaustible and safe source of completely green energy, but for now we are approaching it with very small steps. Interesting news is now coming from the US, as the White House has decided to reactivate the Alcator C-Mod reactor at MIT.

Nuclear fusion is the combination of two lighter nuclei into one heavier nucleus (usually from hydrogen isotopes a heavier helium is created) and as a result a lot of energy is produced. However, the problem that has been insurmountable for years is to carry out such a reaction under controlled conditions and to achieve a positive energy balance of the whole reaction in the process.

Atomic nuclei have a positive electric charge and repel each other, and for the fusion to occur scientists must overcome the electrostatic repulsion and bring the nuclei close enough together to be within range of their strong interactions. This requires unheard of amounts of energy, and while the fusion has been successful, there is still a struggle to get more energy into the whole process than is used to run it.

In 2012, the White House decided to cut off funding for the Alcator C-Mod reactor located at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology instead giving more money to the international ITER project. Now the U.S. Senate has reversed that decision by giving the MIT reactor another $22 million to keep it running until at least 2016, while taking $25 million away from ITER.

We don’t know if this is a good decision because Alcator C-Mod has been operating for 20 years and it has not brought any breakthrough results so far, while 10 times bigger ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor) is currently the most promising experiment in this field.

ITER is an international project involving not only European Union countries but also Japan, USA, Russia, China, South Korea and India – and the total cost of its construction is expected to reach 10 billion Euros, which will make it the second most expensive scientific installation in the world after the International Space Station. The world’s largest tokamak (Russian: toroidalnaja lamiera s magnitnymi katushki, i.e. toroidal chamber with magnetic coil) is to be built in which fusion is to be sustained for about 1000 seconds reaching a power of 500-1000 MW.

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