Fusion energy nears Kitty Hawk moment
In trying to explain their recent fusion energy breakthrough, Dennis Whyte of MIT and Bob Mumgaard of Commonwealth Fusion Systems reached back to the dawn of aviation.
Fusion could be a life-saver for the planet, producing carbon-free, relatively inexpensive energy with no waste byproducts. It works the same way the sun does, by merging two atoms together under extreme heat to release vast amounts of energy. It’s the opposite of the fission process used by nuclear power plants, where atoms are split to release large amounts of energy.
The potential benefits of fusion are well-known, but containing a mixture of electrically charged particles being heated at 100 million degrees is a major challenge. In an interview on The Codcast, Whyte and Mumgaard explained how earlier this month they successfully developed a high-temperature superconductor electromagnet that requires a lot less space and a lot less heat to contain what amounts to an artificial star.
They said their technological breakthrough gives them confidence that they can now move forward with two new challenges where the science is more straightforward – proving a fusion reaction can generate more energy than it uses by 2025 and developing a commercial-scale fusion power plant by around 2030.
Mumgaard, the CEO of Commonwealth Fusion Systems, said he wasn’t surprised the company’s recent technological breakthrough failed to gain widespread attention.
“This is a big step and this is a key step, but this is a pretty esoteric step and a pretty esoteric thing, right?” Mumgaard said. “No one can be blamed for not understanding that right away. … We had a big reaction from the people that follow energy technology and the people in fusion. That trend is also a trend that is broadly across all technologies. The beginnings of the change are not apparent to everybody. People talk about the Wright brothers. Actually, they were flying for months before people believed it was true.”
Whyte said the breakthrough came about by thinking outside the box. He said he was frustrated with the slow pace of fusion development and decided his class at MIT would start looking outside the academic bubble for a disruptive magnet technology capable of containing a fusion reaction.
“Let’s take science that we understand, but give it a new tool so we’re going to be able to do it a lot faster and a lot more effectively,” Whyte said.
The class hit on the idea of using newly developed high-temperature superconductors to build the magnet. Mumgaard, who was a student in Whyte’s class, said it’s a lot like what happened with computers. He said computers existed before the transistor came along, but they were big and difficult to use. The transistor allowed computers to be downsized and operate at much faster speeds.
“That’s very similar to what we’ve done with this magnet,” he said. “In this analogy, fusion energy has been studied for a long time. We know what the rules are that govern it, but we haven’t yet put it in the hands of being useful.”
Mumgaard said the company’s 160 employees from all over the world are very focused on what needs to get done. “From the very beginning, everyone involved knew what it is that we had to do,” Mumgaard said. “That’s actually a rare thing in a startup. A startup is oftentimes looking for the right path to go. It’s either a problem in search of a solution or a solution in search of a problem and we had a pretty good fit on problem and solution from the very beginning. And that’s a unique thing to be in because it attracts other people who want to solve those type of problems.”
Mumgaard said it’s been fun to see how the world has responded to what the company is trying to do. “When we first started out, people thought that’s really audacious and I think that might be borderline crazy,” he said. “Now it’s just seen as audacious and also with a lot of momentum.”
Janey endorses Wu: Boston Acting Mayor Kim Janey endorses Michelle Wu for mayor, giving the city councilor’s campaign a huge leg up in landing the support of the city’s Black community. Janey finished fourth in the preliminary election, behind Andrea Campbell and ahead of John Barros, the other two Black candidates in the race.
— “I believe she is the candidate with the record and the values to not only protect the progress that we have made, but to build upon that progress to create a city that is more equitable, more just, and more resilient,” Janey said of Wu.
— Annissa Essaibi George, who is facing Wu in the November final, garnered the bulk of her support in predominantly white districts in Dorchester, West Roxbury, and other parts of the city. Read more.
Save Pier 5: Chrisopher Nicodemus, Diane Valle, Gerald Angoff, and Sherrie Cutler urge the city of Boston not to turn Pier 5 in Charlestown over to developers who would privatize a public asset. Read more.
School without a home: Kerry Donahue, chief strategy officer at the Boston Schools Fund, raises tough questions about the failure of the Boston Public Schools to find space for the Edward M. Kennedy Academy for Health Careers, an in-district charter high school. Read more.
Drug price controls: William Smith of the Pioneer Institute sounds the alarm about a Democratic proposal to place price controls on pharmaceuticals, warning the initiative could curb innovation and harm the Massachusetts economy. Read more.
What is there to fear? Lisa Lazare of Educators for Excellence Boston decries the ignorant, reactionary campaign against efforts to eliminate bias in school curriculums. Read more.
Good grades: Natacha Scott of iCivics.org reports that Massachusetts is getting tops-in-the-nation grades on civics and history. Read more.
FROM AROUND THE WEB
The Legislature will hold a hearing Monday on bills establishing safe injection sites. (Associated Press)
An affordable housing battle in Gov. Charlie Baker’s hometown of Swampscott spotlights exactly the kind of resistance to new development that the governor says must be overcome to increase the supply of housing in the state. (Boston Globe)
Spouses of military members killed in war urge lawmakers to change a policy that stops their survivors’ benefits if they remarry. (Eagle-Tribune)
Cannabis Control Commission chairman Steven Hoffman says he has concerns about the impact fees communities are charging marijuana businesses, now that the industry is more well-established. (Eagle-Tribune)
Martha Mazzone, whose father oversaw the court-ordered cleanup of Boston Harbor, decries as short-sighted the move by Boston Acting Mayor Kim Janey to scuttle the Downtown Waterfront Municipal Harbor Plan that was developed over five years of planning. (Boston Globe)
Suffolk County Sheriff Steven Tompkins proposes housing 100 homeless people from the Mass and Cass area at a detention center he operates. (WBUR)
Four counties – Bristol, Norfolk, Barnstable, and Plymouth – are joining together to create an online portal for cities and towns to apply for federal ARPA funds. (Standard-Times)
A Pembroke selectman is under fire for comparing interview questions for the town’s diversity committee to Nazi Germany. (Patriot Ledger)
MassLive examines the slow revitalization of the small Central Massachusetts town of Clinton, which is evolving from a drive-through milltown to a community with burgeoning neighborhoods and downtowns.
An average of 89 percent of nursing home staff are now vaccinated as homes ramp up efforts to get staff vaccinated ahead of a state mandate. (Salem News)
A new CHIA report shows hospital profits were down last year due to COVID. (MassLive)
Gov. Charlie Baker, in a tweet, urges St. Vincent Hospital and its nurses to reach consensus and end the long strike. (MassLive)
The Boston Herald reports that a Sunday anti-mask and anti-vaccine rally in front of the State House doubled as a campaign event for Republican gubernatorial candidate Geoff Diehl, who spoke to the crowd and took shots at Gov. Charlie Baker’s stands on everything from vaccine mandates to mail-in voting, while mixing in misrepresentations of current state COVID restrictions. (Boston Herald)
Voters on Tuesday will narrow the field in an open race for Northampton mayor. (MassLive)
A group of Asian and white parents has sued the Boston Public Schools, accusing the school department and city legal department of holding back data, text messages, and other documents related to the changes to exam school admission policies. (Boston Globe)
A UMass Amherst administrator says the campus has seen an uptick in anti-Black racist incidents (MassLive)
The Globe finds lots of other places like the closed-off staircase at the MBTA’s JFK/UMass Station where a Boston University professor fell to his death. The cases of deteriorating infrastructure straddle the divide of jurisdiction among different state agencies, creating uncertainty over what office is in charge of their upkeep.
Nine people suffer minor injuries when an escalator malfunctions at Back Bay Station. (WBUR)
Despite Milton residents’ concerns about airplane noise, a new study done by Massport does not recommend changes to flight paths to and from Logan Airport. (Patriot Ledger) Over in Nahant, however, the town administrator is rallying residents to oppose flight path changes out of Logan. (Daily Item)
Opponents of cutting down forests to make way for large-scale solar projects are rallying behind legislation on Beacon Hill. (Daily Hampshire Gazette)
The union representing state police officers says dozens of troopers plan to retire rather than comply with Gov. Baker’s vaccine mandate. (Telegram & Gazette)
Shelley Ross, a veteran TV journalist, says CNN’s Chris Cuomo sexually assaulted her. (New York Times)PASSINGS
Bishop Neal A. Boyd, leader of the Endtime Revival Holiness Church and an outreach crisis counselor for people with mental illness in Springfield, dies at 61. (MassLive)