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Undecided with Matt Ferrell explains recent nuclear fusion breakthrough

Written By | Nov 5, 2021
Nuclear, Fusion, Wind, Solar, MIT

Image courtesy of MIT video screen shot

BOSTON: A new short video out by “Curiosity Stream” and their show “Undecided with Matt Ferrell” offer some pretty exciting news for a possible future energy source. In Exploring Why This Nuclear Fusion Breakthrough Matters, Ferrell explains how something old becomes new technology.

Matt Ferrell lives in the Boston area and is a UI/UX designer by trade.

The difference between User Interface (UI) and User Experience (UX) is UI refers to the aesthetic elements by which people interact with a product (form), while UX is about the experience a user has with a product (function). Ferrell is an enjoyable narrator as his scripts are written tight, to the point, and well researched. When he reports them, his obsession with technology and how it works becomes obvious.

In 2018 he started his YouTube channel “Undecided with Matt Ferrell.” Since then, the scientific videos have over 300,000 subscribers. Ferrell explores sustainable and smart technologies like electric vehicles, solar panels, and smart homes. His enthusiasm reporting is contagious and makes his subscribers hungry for more.

His latest episode, “Exploring why this nuclear fusion breakthrough matters,” discusses a recent significant fusion development.

Ferrell jokingly refers to this as a kind of a nuclear bombshell but then corrects himself for those who might be overly sensitive. His reporting is all about high-temperature semiconductors or magnets which allow fusion to occur.

Ferrell offers climate change and energy information to those who know that what is already on the table is either not the best alternatives or outright fraud. For example, new research in solar and wind energy as forms of “green energy” reveals that more power is necessary to make a wind turbine than it will ever produce in its lifetime.

Further, wind turbines are a Chinese product. They are not made in the United States. There is new evidence that solar panels are contributing to global warming as far as solar goes. The big negative of solar and wind is in many parts of the United States, and they are only around 30% effective as bright sun and wind currents are not always present.

Nuclear Power

As far as nuclear energy by fission, the method used in nuclear-generating plants today, is highly effective. Still, it also comes with risks (Fukushima and Chernobyl), producing nuclear waste that will last some 4,000 years.

Ferrell likes to mention that fusion has been the butt of many jokes over the years. Many people of science thought it was an unworkable theory.

“Did you hear about the nuclear scientist who was a conman? His scam was con-fusion.”

Some of the jokes began when Stanley Pons of the University of Utah and his mentor, Martin Fleischmann of Britain’s University of Southampton, held a news conference in 1989 in Salt Lake City. The two electrochemists announced they had produced energy with a cold fusion reaction in a benchtop apparatus at room temperature.

They could not make their invention replicate their results at the news conference, and the whole event was akin to Geraldo Rivera’s 1986 episode of opening “Al Capone’s Tomb.”  (Oral History: When Geraldo Rivera Opened Al Capone’s Vault)

But, jokes aside, fusion nuclear energy is under research and development worldwide, and gains in the field are being made more rapidly than anticipated.

That is what Ferrell’s report is on. He also gives us a lesson on how safe it would be compared to fission.

Fission’s by-products are highly radioactive and, if not appropriately controlled, can contaminate the planet.

Fission’s chain reaction can degenerate and potentially get out of control, causing a nuclear meltdown or explosion. The 1979 movie “The China Syndrome” was a box office hit that first called the world’s attention to nuclear fission energy generation risks.

A similar incident would never happen to a tokamak fusion generator. A tokamak is an oblong doughnut-shaped chamber reaching temperatures of hydrogen isotopes to 150 million degrees by magnetic confinement fusion (MCF). At these temperatures, atoms are stripped of their electrons and turn into ions.

What is left is a superheated ionized gas, which is plasma. With these conditions, the charged particles collide and fuse, much like in the sun. Another safety feature of fusion nuclear-generated energy is that scientists can stop it by cutting off the fuel supply. Nuclear fission can take the better part of half an hour to take a reactor offline. Furthermore, it is not a simple procedure.

Much of Ferrell’s report centers around Dr. Martin Greenwald.

Dr. Greenwald is Deputy Director and Head of the Office of Computer Services for MIT’s Plasma Science & Fusion Center (PSFC). He has worked in the field of magnetic fusion energy for over 40 years.

Dr. Greenwald contrasts nuclear fission energy with nuclear fusion energy saying, “It can’t melt down the way a fission plant can. It doesn’t have the same kind of waste materials. So, it has all these advantages. The other thing is it doesn’t use a lot of land or a lot of water. So, it’s a very good complement to renewables.”

One of the obstacles to the process of fusion energy generation is heat.

MCF fusion reactors require an incredible magnetic field to generate to contain the plasma, which gets very hot. So massive magnets ringing the rig create an intense magnetic field. This invisible bubble field traps the blistering hot and electrically charged slurry midair near the center of the reactor. Keeping this activity away from the rig walls is critical so the plasma won’t melt them.

A nuclear scientific breakthrough is made.

In September of 2021, The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), with the Commonwealth Fusion Systems start-up (CFS)17, designed one of the most powerful magnets ever created on earth. Their joint experiment made an important discovery. They managed to generate an incredible magnetic field with less power than previously required. To achieve their milestone, they used a high-temperature superconductor (HTS).

Their innovation was not new but more of repurposing of something old.

Back in 2015, MIT proposed using this variety of superconducting tape in their device design. The resultant test magnet used 267 km (166 miles) of this HTS tape. The material of the tape retains superconductivity at high temperatures allowing a more intense magnetic field.

Dr. Greenwald telling Ferrell,

“The new material, the high-temperature superconductor, which is really a ceramic-like compound of rare earth and barium copper oxide, it’s a fairly fragile material, but people learned how to put it down as a thin film. On a strong sub-structure.”

It turns out there was a breakthrough in technology that we could take advantage of that we weren’t responsible for. It was an invention discovery really by some IBM scientists working at a lab in Zurich in the ’80s, and that was high-temperature superconductors.

It didn’t really look like an engineering material, and a lot of people thought, well, this is really interesting scientifically but this will never be practical. You’d never be able to build a magnet or a wire out of this. But it had a lot of promise, and we followed this very closely because we thought, well, this material could allow us to make a superconducting magnet that ran at high enough fields.”

So these folks in this scientific world of fusion discuss a breakeven point whereby they quantify an amount of energy put into the energy put out. Scientists quantify this ratio of what comes out over what goes in and is usually denoted “Q.”

If the Q factor is greater than 1, you create net energy. Up until now, the best achieved has been about .75 of 1.

Mr. Ferrell questions Dr. Greenwald:

Dr. Greenwald:

“Now we’ve just got to finalize the design and build the machine. And we hope that it’ll be operating by 2025 and producing fusion power shortly thereafter.”

Mr. Ferrell:  So, how much power are we talking about?

Dr. Greenwald:

“What we use for our estimates of how it will perform is the same set of physics rules that are used for the ITER experiment.”

The ITER experiment predictions are it will have a Q greater than ten, as does SPARC. To develop this prototype reactor, CFS has raised over $250 million.

Alphabet soup points of reference:

ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor) in southern France.

ITER is funded and run by seven-member parties: the European Union, China, India, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and the United States. Additionally, the United Kingdom and Switzerland participate through Euratom, while the project has cooperation agreements with Australia, Kazakhstan, and Canada. The ITER plans is to go online in 2025.

SPARC (Scalable Processor Architecture.)

A general-purpose, 32-bit integer and 32, 64, and 128-bit floating-point unit, ISA (instruction set architecture) based on RISC (reduced instruction set computer) design built at the University of California at Berkeley.

CFS (Commonwealth Fusion Systems) is an organization with a website full of information.

Matt Ferrell’s reporting in this episode of “Undecided with Matt Ferrell” should be big news around the nation and the world. Nonetheless, if we worry about climate change yet maintain our current standard of energy consumption, this news of scientific development to facilitate fusion is truly phenomenal.

Some think we will have an experimental reactor developed by the end of the decade with commercial reactors online by 2050! 


Read more from Mark Schwendau.

About the author:

Mark Schwendau is a conservative Christian patriot and retired technology professor (CAD-CAM and web development). He prides himself on his critical thinking ability. Schwendau has had a long sideline of newspaper editorial writing where he used the byline, “bringing little known facts to people who want to know the truth.”

Mark is “on alternative free speech social media platforms after lifetime bans from Facebook and Twitter and shadow bans from Instagram and Fox News commenting.

His website is www.IDrawIWrite.Tech

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Mark Schwendau

Mark Schwendau is a Christian conservative patriot and retired technology professor (CAD-CAM and web development) who prides himself on his critical thinking ability. Schwendau has had a long sideline of newspaper editorial writing where he used the byline, “- bringing little known facts to people who simply want to know the truth.” Mark is on alternative free speech social media platforms after lifetime bans from Facebook and Twitter and shadow bans from Instagram and Fox News commenting. His website is www.IDrawIWrite.Tech