More stories

  • in

    Helping to make nuclear fusion a reality

    Up until she served in the Peace Corps in Malawi, Rachel Bielajew was open to a career reboot. Having studied nuclear engineering as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, graduate school had been on her mind. But seeing the drastic impacts of climate change play out in real-time in Malawi — the lives of the country’s subsistence farmers swing wildly, depending on the rains — convinced Bielajew of the importance of nuclear engineering. Bielajew was struck that her high school students in the small town of Chisenga had a shaky understanding of math, but universally understood global warming. “The concept of the changing world due to human impact was evident, and they could see it,” Bielajew says.

    Bielajew was looking to work on solutions that could positively impact global problems and feed her love of physics. Nuclear engineering, especially the study of fusion as a carbon-free energy source, checked off both boxes. Bielajew is now a fourth-year doctoral candidate in the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering (NSE). She researches magnetic confinement fusion in the Plasma Science and Fusion Center (PSFC) with Professor Anne White.

    Researching fusion’s big challenge

    You need to confine plasma effectively in order to generate the extremely high temperatures (100 million degrees Celsius) fusion needs, without melting the walls of the tokamak, the device that hosts these reactions. Magnets can do the job, but “plasmas are weird, they behave strangely and are challenging to understand,” Bielajew says. Small instabilities in plasma can coalesce into fluctuating turbulence that can drive heat and particles out of the machine.

    In high-confinement mode, the edges of the plasma have less tolerance for such unruly behavior. “The turbulence gets damped out and sheared apart at the edge,” Bielajew says. This might seem like a good thing, but high-confinement plasmas have their own challenges. They are so tightly bound that they create edge-localized modes (ELMs), bursts of damaging particles and energy, that can be extremely damaging to the machine.

    The questions Bielajew is looking to answer: How do we get high confinement without ELMs? How do turbulence and transport play a role in plasmas? “We do not fully understand turbulence, even though we have studied it for a long time,” Bielajew says, “It is a big and important problem to solve for fusion to be a reality. I like that challenge,” Bielajew adds.

    A love of science

    Confronting such challenges head-on has been part of Bielajew’s toolkit since she was a child growing up in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Her father, Alex Bielajew, is a professor of nuclear engineering at the University of Michigan, and Bielajew’s mother also pursued graduate studies.

    Bielajew’s parents encouraged her to follow her own path and she found it led to her father’s chosen profession: nuclear engineering. Once she decided to pursue research in fusion, MIT stood out as a school she could set her sights on. “I knew that MIT had an extensive program in fusion and a lot of faculty in the field,” Bielajew says. The mechanics of the application were challenging: Chisenga had limited internet access, so Bielajew had to ride on the back of a pickup truck to meet a friend in a city a few hours away and use his phone as a hotspot to send the documents.

    A similar tenacity has surfaced in Bielajew’s approach to research during the Covid-19 pandemic. Working off a blueprint, Bielajew built the Correlation Cyclotron Emission Diagnostic, which measures turbulent electron temperature fluctuations. Through a collaboration, Bielajew conducts her plasma research at the ASDEX Upgrade tokamak in Germany. Traditionally, Bielajew would ship the diagnostic to Germany, follow and install it, and conduct the research in person. The pandemic threw a wrench in the plans, so Bielajew shipped the diagnostic and relied on team members to install it. She Zooms into the control room and trusts others to run the plasma experiments.

    DEI advocate

    Bielajew is very hands-on with another endeavor: improving diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in her own backyard. Having grown up with parental encouragement and in an environment that never doubted her place as a woman in engineering, Bielajew realizes not everyone has the same opportunities. “I wish that the world was in a place where all I had to do was care about my research, but it’s not,” Bielajew says. While science can solve many problems, more fundamental ones about equity need humans to act in specific ways, she points out. “I want to see more women represented, more people of color. Everyone needs a voice in building a better world,” Bielajew says.

    To get there, Bielajew co-launched NSE’s Graduate Application Assistance Program, which connects underrepresented student applicants with NSE mentors. She has been the DEI officer with NSE’s student group, ANS, and is very involved in the department’s DEI committee.

    As for future research, Bielajew hopes to concentrate on the experiments that make her question existing paradigms about plasmas under high confinement. Bielajew has registered more head-scratching “hmm” moments than “a-ha” ones. Measurements from her experiments drive the need for more intensive study.

    Bielajew’s dogs, Dobby and Winky, keep her company through it all. They came home with her from Malawi. More

  • in

    Radio-frequency wave scattering improves fusion simulations

    In the quest for fusion energy, understanding how radio-frequency (RF) waves travel (or “propagate”) in the turbulent interior of a fusion furnace is crucial to maintaining an efficient, continuously operating power plant. Transmitted by an antenna in the doughnut-shaped vacuum chamber common to magnetic confinement fusion devices called tokamaks, RF waves heat the plasma fuel and drive its current around the toroidal interior. The efficiency of this process can be affected by how the wave’s trajectory is altered (or “scattered”) by conditions within the chamber.

    Researchers have tried to study these RF processes using computer simulations to match the experimental conditions. A good match would validate the computer model, and raise confidence in using it to explore new physics and design future RF antennas that perform efficiently. While the simulations can accurately calculate how much total current is driven by RF waves, they do a poor job at predicting where exactly in the plasma this current is produced.

    Now, in a paper published in the Journal of Plasma Physics, MIT researchers suggest that the models for RF wave propagation used for these simulations have not properly taken into account the way these waves are scattered as they encounter dense, turbulent filaments present in the edge of the plasma known as the “scrape-off layer” (SOL).

    Bodhi Biswas, a graduate student at the Plasma Science and Fusion Center (PSFC) under the direction of Senior Research Scientist Paul Bonoli, School of Engineering Distinguished Professor of Engineering Anne White, and Principal Research Scientist Abhay Ram, who is the paper’s lead author. Ram compares the scattering that occurs in this situation to a wave of water hitting a lily pad: “The wave crashing with the lily pad will excite a secondary, scattered wave that makes circular ripples traveling outward from the plant. The incoming wave has transferred energy to the scattered wave. Some of this energy is reflected backwards (in relation to the incoming wave), some travels forwards, and some is deflected to the side. The specifics all depend on the particular attributes of the wave, the water, and the lily pad. In our case, the lily pad is the plasma filament.”

    Until now, researchers have not properly taken these filaments and the scattering they provoke into consideration when modeling the turbulence inside a tokamak, leading to an underestimation of wave scattering. Using data from PSFC tokamak Alcator C-Mod, Biswas shows that using the new method of modeling RF-wave scattering from SOL turbulence provides results considerably different from older models, and a much better match to experiments. Notably, the “lower-hybrid” wave spectrum, crucial to driving plasma current in a steady-state tokamak, appears to scatter asymmetrically, an important effect not accounted for in previous models.

    Biswas’s advisor Paul Bonoli is well acquainted with traditional “ray-tracing” models, which evaluate a wave trajectory by dividing it into a series of rays. He has used this model, with its limitations, for decades in his own research to understand plasma behavior. Bonoli says he is pleased that “the research results in Bodhi’s doctoral thesis have refocused attention on the profound effect that edge turbulence can have on the propagation and absorption of radio-frequency power.”

    Although ray-tracing treatments of scattering do not fully capture all the wave physics, a “full-wave” model that does would be prohibitively expensive. To solve the problem economically, Biswas splits his analysis into two parts: (1) using ray tracing to model the trajectory of the wave in the tokamak assuming no turbulence, while (2) modifying this ray-trajectory with the new scattering model that accounts for the turbulent plasma filaments.

    “This scattering model is a full-wave model, but computed over a small region and in a simplified geometry so that it is very quick to do,” says Biswas. “The result is a ray-tracing model that, for the first time, accounts for full-wave scattering physics.”

    Biswas notes that this model bridges the gap between simple scattering models that fail to match experiment and full-wave models that are prohibitively expensive, providing reasonable accuracy at low cost.

    “Our results suggest scattering is an important effect, and that it must be taken into account when designing future RF antennas. The low cost of our scattering model makes this very doable.”

    “This is exciting progress,” says Syun’ichi Shiraiwa, staff research physicist at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory. “I believe that Bodhi’s work provides a clear path to the end of a long tunnel we have been in. His work not only demonstrates that the wave scattering, once accurately accounted for, can explain the experimental results, but also answers a puzzling question: why previous scattering models were incomplete, and their results unsatisfying.”

    Work is now underway to apply this model to more plasmas from Alcator C-Mod and other tokamaks. Biswas believes that this new model will be particularly applicable to high-density tokamak plasmas, for which the standard ray-tracing model has been noticeably inaccurate. He is also excited that the model could be validated by DIII-D National Fusion Facility, a fusion experiment on which the PSFC collaborates.

    “The DIII-D tokamak will soon be capable of launching lower hybrid waves and measuring its electric field in the scrape-off layer. These measurements could provide direct evidence of the asymmetric scattering effect predicted by our model.” More

  • in

    Q&A: Options for the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant

    The Diablo Canyon nuclear plant in California, the only one still operating in the state, is set to close in 2025. A team of researchers at MIT’s Center for Advanced Nuclear Energy Systems, Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab, and Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research; Stanford’s Precourt Energy Institute; and energy analysis firm LucidCatalyst LLC have analyzed the potential benefits the plant could provide if its operation were extended to 2030 or 2045.

    They found that this nuclear plant could simultaneously help to stabilize the state’s electric grid, provide desalinated water to supplement the state’s chronic water shortages, and provide carbon-free hydrogen fuel for transportation. MIT News asked report co-authors Jacopo Buongiorno, the TEPCO Professor of Nuclear Science and Engineering, and John Lienhard, the Jameel Professor of Water and Food, to discuss the group’s findings.

    Q: Your report suggests co-locating a major desalination plant alongside the existing Diablo Canyon power plant. What would be the potential benefits from operating a desalination plant in conjunction with the power plant?

    Lienhard: The cost of desalinated water produced at Diablo Canyon would be lower than for a stand-alone plant because the cost of electricity would be significantly lower and you could take advantage of the existing infrastructure for the intake of seawater and the outfall of brine. Electricity would be cheaper because there’s not an electrical transmission charge — you’re right at the plant, and the power doesn’t have to be sent across the grid.

    Depending on the scale at which the desalination plant is built, you could make a very significant impact on the water shortfalls of state and federal projects in the area. In fact, one of the numbers that came out of this study was that an intermediate-sized desalination plant there would produce more fresh water than the highest estimate of the net yield from the proposed Delta Conveyance Project on the Sacramento River. You could get that amount of water at Diablo Canyon for an investment cost less than half as large, and without the associated impacts that would come with the Delta Conveyance Project.

    And the technology envisioned for desalination here, reverse osmosis, is available off the shelf. You can buy this equipment today. In fact, it’s already in use in California and thousands of other places around the world.

    Q: You discuss in the report three potential products from the Diablo Canyon plant:  desalinatinated water, power for the grid, and clean hydrogen. How well can the plant accommodate all of those efforts, and are there advantages to combining them as opposed to doing any one of them separately?

    Buongiorno: California, like many other regions in the world, is facing multiple challenges as it seeks to reduce carbon emissions on a grand scale. First, the wide deployment of intermittent energy sources such as solar and wind creates a great deal of variability on the grid that can be balanced by dispatchable firm power generators like Diablo. So, the first mission for Diablo is to continue to provide reliable, clean electricity to the grid.

    The second challenge is the prolonged drought and water scarcity for the state in general. And one way to address that is water desalination co-located with the nuclear plant at the Diablo site, as John explained.

    The third challenge is related to decarbonization the transportation sector. A possible approach is replacing conventional cars and trucks with vehicles powered by fuel cells which consume hydrogen. Hydrogen has to be produced from a primary energy source. Nuclear power, through a process called electrolysis, can do that quite efficiently and in a manner that is carbon-free.

    Our economic analysis took into account the expected revenue from selling these multiple products — electricity for the grid, hydrogen for the transportation sector, water for farmers or other local users — as well as the costs associated with deploying the new facilities needed to produce desalinated water and hydrogen. We found that, if Diablo’s operating license was extended until 2035, it would cut carbon emissions by an average of 7 million metric tons a year — a more than 11 percent reduction from 2017 levels — and save ratepayers $2.6 billion in power system costs.

    Further delaying the retirement of Diablo to 2045 would spare 90,000 acres of land that would need to be dedicated to renewable energy production to replace the facility’s capacity, and it would save ratepayers up to $21 billion in power system costs.

    Finally, if Diablo was operated as a polygeneration facility that provides electricity, desalinated water, and hydrogen simultaneously, its value, quantified in terms of dollars per unit electricity generated, could increase by 50 percent.

    Lienhard: Most of the desalination scenarios that we considered did not consume the full electrical output of that plant, meaning that under most scenarios you would continue to make electricity and do something with it, beyond just desalination. I think it’s also important to remember that this power plant produces 15 percent of California’s carbon-free electricity today and is responsible for 8 percent of the state’s total electrical production. In other words, Diablo Canyon is a very large factor in California’s decarbonization. When or if this plant goes offline, the near-term outcome is likely to be increased reliance on natural gas to produce electricity, meaning a rise in California’s carbon emissions.

    Q: This plant in particular has been highly controversial since its inception. What’s your assessment of the plant’s safety beyond its scheduled shutdown, and how do you see this report as contributing to the decision-making about that shutdown?

    Buongiorno: The Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant has a very strong safety record. The potential safety concern for Diablo is related to its proximity to several fault lines. Being located in California, the plant was designed to withstand large earthquakes to begin with. Following the Fukushima accident in 2011, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission reviewed the plant’s ability to withstand external events (e.g., earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, tornadoes, wildfires, hurricanes) of exceptionally rare and severe magnitude. After nine years of assessment the NRC’s conclusion is that “existing seismic capacity or effective flood protection [at Diablo Canyon] will address the unbounded reevaluated hazards.” That is, Diablo was designed and built to withstand even the rarest and strongest earthquakes that are physically possible at this site.

    As an additional level of protection, the plant has been retrofitted with special equipment and procedures meant to ensure reliable cooling of the reactor core and spent fuel pool under a hypothetical scenario in which all design-basis safety systems have been disabled by a severe external event.

    Lienhard: As for the potential impact of this report, PG&E [the California utility] has already made the decision to shut down the plant, and we and others hope that decision will be revisited and reversed. We believe that this report gives the relevant stakeholders and policymakers a lot of information about options and value associated with keeping the plant running, and about how California could benefit from clean water and clean power generated at Diablo Canyon. It’s not up to us to make the decision, of course — that is a decision that must be made by the people of California. All we can do is provide information.

    Q: What are the biggest challenges or obstacles to seeing these ideas implemented?

    Lienhard: California has very strict environmental protection regulations, and it’s good that they do. One of the areas of great concern to California is the health of the ocean and protection of the coastal ecosystem. As a result, very strict rules are in place about the intake and outfall of both power plants and desalination plants, to protect marine life. Our analysis suggests that this combined plant can be implemented within the parameters prescribed by the California Ocean Plan and that it can meet the regulatory requirements.

    We believe that deeper analysis would be needed before you could proceed. You would need to do site studies and really get out into the water and look in detail at what’s there. But the preliminary analysis is positive. A second challenge is that the discourse in California around nuclear power has generally not been very supportive, and similarly some groups in California oppose desalination. We expect that that both of those points of view would be part of the conversation about whether or not to procede with this project.

    Q: How particular is this analysis to the specifics of this location? Are there aspects of it that apply to other nuclear plants, domestically or globally?

    Lienhard: Hundreds of nuclear plants around the world are situated along the coast, and many are in water stressed regions. Although our analysis focused on Diablo Canyon, we believe that the general findings are applicable to many other seaside nuclear plants, so that this approach and these conclusions could potentially be applied at hundreds of sites worldwide. More

  • in

    Crossing disciplines, adding fresh eyes to nuclear engineering

    Sometimes patterns repeat in nature. Spirals appear in sunflowers and hurricanes. Branches occur in veins and lightning. Limiao Zhang, a doctoral student in MIT’s Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering, has found another similarity: between street traffic and boiling water, with implications for preventing nuclear meltdowns.

    Growing up in China, Zhang enjoyed watching her father repair things around the house. He couldn’t fulfill his dream of becoming an engineer, instead joining the police force, but Zhang did have that opportunity and studied mechanical engineering at Three Gorges University. Being one of four girls among about 50 boys in the major didn’t discourage her. “My father always told me girls can do anything,” she says. She graduated at the top of her class.

    In college, she and a team of classmates won a national engineering competition. They designed and built a model of a carousel powered by solar, hydroelectric, and pedal power. One judge asked how long the system could operate safely. “I didn’t have a perfect answer,” she recalls. She realized that engineering means designing products that not only function, but are resilient. So for her master’s degree, at Beihang University, she turned to industrial engineering and analyzed the reliability of critical infrastructure, in particular traffic networks.

    “Among all the critical infrastructures, nuclear power plants are quite special,” Zhang says. “Although one can provide very enormous carbon-free energy, once it fails, it can cause catastrophic results.” So she decided to switch fields again and study nuclear engineering. At the time she had no nuclear background, and hadn’t studied in the United States, but “I tried to step out of my comfort zone,” she says. “I just applied and MIT welcomed me.” Her supervisor, Matteo Bucci, and her classmates explained the basics of fission reactions as she adjusted to the new material, language, and environment. She doubted herself — “my friend told me, ‘I saw clouds above your head’” — but she passed her first-year courses and published her first paper soon afterward.

    Much of the work in Bucci’s lab deals with what’s called the boiling crisis. In many applications, such as nuclear plants and powerful computers, water cools things. When a hot surface boils water, bubbles cling to the surface before rising, but if too many form, they merge into a layer of vapor that insulates the surface. The heat has nowhere to go — a boiling crisis.

    Bucci invited Zhang into his lab in part because she saw a connection between traffic and heat transfer. The data plots of both phenomena look surprisingly similar. “The mathematical tools she had developed for the study of traffic jams were a completely different way of looking into our problem” Bucci says, “by using something which is intuitively not connected.”

    One can view bubbles as cars. The more there are, the more they interfere with each other. People studying boiling had focused on the physics of individual bubbles. Zhang instead uses statistical physics to analyze collective patterns of behavior. “She brings a different set of skills, a different set of knowledge, to our research,” says Guanyu Su, a postdoc in the lab. “That’s very refreshing.”

    In her first paper on the boiling crisis, published in Physical Review Letters, Zhang used theory and simulations to identify scale-free behavior in boiling: just as in traffic, the same patterns appear whether zoomed in or out, in terms of space or time. Both small and large bubbles matter. Using this insight, the team found certain physical parameters that could predict a boiling crisis. Zhang’s mathematical tools both explain experimental data and suggest new experiments to try. For a second paper, the team collected more data and found ways to predict the boiling crisis in a wider variety of conditions.

    Zhang’s thesis and third paper, both in progress, propose a universal law for explaining the crisis. “She translated the mechanism into a physical law, like F=ma or E=mc2,” Bucci says. “She came up with an equally simple equation.” Zhang says she’s learned a lot from colleagues in the department who are pioneering new nuclear reactors or other technologies, “but for my own work, I try to get down to the very basics of a phenomenon.”

    Bucci describes Zhang as determined, open-minded, and commendably self-critical. Su says she’s careful, optimistic, and courageous. “If I imagine going from heat transfer to city planning, that would be almost impossible for me,” he says. “She has a strong mind.” Last year, Zhang gave birth to a boy, whom she’s raising on her own as she does her research. (Her husband is stuck in China during the pandemic.) “This, to me,” Bucci says, “is almost superhuman.”

    Zhang will graduate at the end of the year, and has started looking for jobs back in China. She wants to continue in the energy field, though maybe not nuclear. “I will use my interdisciplinary knowledge,” she says. “I hope I can design safer and more efficient and more reliable systems to provide energy for our society.” More

  • in

    MIT-designed project achieves major advance toward fusion energy

    It was a moment three years in the making, based on intensive research and design work: On Sept. 5, for the first time, a large high-temperature superconducting electromagnet was ramped up to a field strength of 20 tesla, the most powerful magnetic field of its kind ever created on Earth. That successful demonstration helps resolve the greatest uncertainty in the quest to build the world’s first fusion power plant that can produce more power than it consumes, according to the project’s leaders at MIT and startup company Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS).

    That advance paves the way, they say, for the long-sought creation of practical, inexpensive, carbon-free power plants that could make a major contribution to limiting the effects of global climate change.

    “Fusion in a lot of ways is the ultimate clean energy source,” says Maria Zuber, MIT’s vice president for research and E. A. Griswold Professor of Geophysics. “The amount of power that is available is really game-changing.” The fuel used to create fusion energy comes from water, and “the Earth is full of water — it’s a nearly unlimited resource. We just have to figure out how to utilize it.”

    Developing the new magnet is seen as the greatest technological hurdle to making that happen; its successful operation now opens the door to demonstrating fusion in a lab on Earth, which has been pursued for decades with limited progress. With the magnet technology now successfully demonstrated, the MIT-CFS collaboration is on track to build the world’s first fusion device that can create and confine a plasma that produces more energy than it consumes. That demonstration device, called SPARC, is targeted for completion in 2025.

    “The challenges of making fusion happen are both technical and scientific,” says Dennis Whyte, director of MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center, which is working with CFS to develop SPARC. But once the technology is proven, he says, “it’s an inexhaustible, carbon-free source of energy that you can deploy anywhere and at any time. It’s really a fundamentally new energy source.”

    Whyte, who is the Hitachi America Professor of Engineering, says this week’s demonstration represents a major milestone, addressing the biggest questions remaining about the feasibility of the SPARC design. “It’s really a watershed moment, I believe, in fusion science and technology,” he says.

    The sun in a bottle

    Fusion is the process that powers the sun: the merger of two small atoms to make a larger one, releasing prodigious amounts of energy. But the process requires temperatures far beyond what any solid material could withstand. To capture the sun’s power source here on Earth, what’s needed is a way of capturing and containing something that hot — 100,000,000 degrees or more — by suspending it in a way that prevents it from coming into contact with anything solid.

    That’s done through intense magnetic fields, which form a kind of invisible bottle to contain the hot swirling soup of protons and electrons, called a plasma. Because the particles have an electric charge, they are strongly controlled by the magnetic fields, and the most widely used configuration for containing them is a donut-shaped device called a tokamak. Most of these devices have produced their magnetic fields using conventional electromagnets made of copper, but the latest and largest version under construction in France, called ITER, uses what are known as low-temperature superconductors.

    The major innovation in the MIT-CFS fusion design is the use of high-temperature superconductors, which enable a much stronger magnetic field in a smaller space. This design was made possible by a new kind of superconducting material that became commercially available a few years ago. The idea initially arose as a class project in a nuclear engineering class taught by Whyte. The idea seemed so promising that it continued to be developed over the next few iterations of that class, leading to the ARC power plant design concept in early 2015. SPARC, designed to be about half the size of ARC, is a testbed to prove the concept before construction of the full-size, power-producing plant.

    Until now, the only way to achieve the colossally powerful magnetic fields needed to create a magnetic “bottle” capable of containing plasma heated up to hundreds of millions of degrees was to make them larger and larger. But the new high-temperature superconductor material, made in the form of a flat, ribbon-like tape, makes it possible to achieve a higher magnetic field in a smaller device, equaling the performance that would be achieved in an apparatus 40 times larger in volume using conventional low-temperature superconducting magnets. That leap in power versus size is the key element in ARC’s revolutionary design.

    The use of the new high-temperature superconducting magnets makes it possible to apply decades of experimental knowledge gained from the operation of tokamak experiments, including MIT’s own Alcator series. The new approach, led by Zach Hartwig, the MIT principal investigator and the Robert N. Noyce Career Development Assistant Professor of Nuclear Science and Engineering, uses a well-known design but scales everything down to about half the linear size and still achieves the same operational conditions because of the higher magnetic field.

    A series of scientific papers published last year outlined the physical basis and, by simulation, confirmed the viability of the new fusion device. The papers showed that, if the magnets worked as expected, the whole fusion system should indeed produce net power output, for the first time in decades of fusion research.

    Martin Greenwald, deputy director and senior research scientist at the PSFC, says unlike some other designs for fusion experiments, “the niche that we were filling was to use conventional plasma physics, and conventional tokamak designs and engineering, but bring to it this new magnet technology. So, we weren’t requiring innovation in a half-dozen different areas. We would just innovate on the magnet, and then apply the knowledge base of what’s been learned over the last decades.”

    That combination of scientifically established design principles and game-changing magnetic field strength is what makes it possible to achieve a plant that could be economically viable and developed on a fast track. “It’s a big moment,” says Bob Mumgaard, CEO of CFS. “We now have a platform that is both scientifically very well-advanced, because of the decades of research on these machines, and also commercially very interesting. What it does is allow us to build devices faster, smaller, and at less cost,” he says of the successful magnet demonstration. 

    Play video

    Proof of the concept

    Bringing that new magnet concept to reality required three years of intensive work on design, establishing supply chains, and working out manufacturing methods for magnets that may eventually need to be produced by the thousands.

    “We built a first-of-a-kind, superconducting magnet. It required a lot of work to create unique manufacturing processes and equipment. As a result, we are now well-prepared to ramp-up for SPARC production,” says Joy Dunn, head of operations at CFS. “We started with a physics model and a CAD design, and worked through lots of development and prototypes to turn a design on paper into this actual physical magnet.” That entailed building manufacturing capabilities and testing facilities, including an iterative process with multiple suppliers of the superconducting tape, to help them reach the ability to produce material that met the needed specifications — and for which CFS is now overwhelmingly the world’s biggest user.

    They worked with two possible magnet designs in parallel, both of which ended up meeting the design requirements, she says. “It really came down to which one would revolutionize the way that we make superconducting magnets, and which one was easier to build.” The design they adopted clearly stood out in that regard, she says.

    In this test, the new magnet was gradually powered up in a series of steps until reaching the goal of a 20 tesla magnetic field — the highest field strength ever for a high-temperature superconducting fusion magnet. The magnet is composed of 16 plates stacked together, each one of which by itself would be the most powerful high-temperature superconducting magnet in the world.

    “Three years ago we announced a plan,” says Mumgaard, “to build a 20-tesla magnet, which is what we will need for future fusion machines.” That goal has now been achieved, right on schedule, even with the pandemic, he says.

    Citing the series of physics papers published last year, Brandon Sorbom, the chief science officer at CFS, says “basically the papers conclude that if we build the magnet, all of the physics will work in SPARC. So, this demonstration answers the question: Can they build the magnet? It’s a very exciting time! It’s a huge milestone.”

    The next step will be building SPARC, a smaller-scale version of the planned ARC power plant. The successful operation of SPARC will demonstrate that a full-scale commercial fusion power plant is practical, clearing the way for rapid design and construction of that pioneering device can then proceed full speed.

    Zuber says that “I now am genuinely optimistic that SPARC can achieve net positive energy, based on the demonstrated performance of the magnets. The next step is to scale up, to build an actual power plant. There are still many challenges ahead, not the least of which is developing a design that allows for reliable, sustained operation. And realizing that the goal here is commercialization, another major challenge will be economic. How do you design these power plants so it will be cost effective to build and deploy them?”

    Someday in a hoped-for future, when there may be thousands of fusion plants powering clean electric grids around the world, Zuber says, “I think we’re going to look back and think about how we got there, and I think the demonstration of the magnet technology, for me, is the time when I believed that, wow, we can really do this.”

    The successful creation of a power-producing fusion device would be a tremendous scientific achievement, Zuber notes. But that’s not the main point. “None of us are trying to win trophies at this point. We’re trying to keep the planet livable.” More

  • in

    The boiling crisis — and how to avoid it

    It’s rare for a pre-teen to become enamored with thermodynamics, but those consumed by such a passion may consider themselves lucky to end up at a place like MIT. Madhumitha Ravichandran certainly does. A PhD student in Nuclear Science and Engineering (NSE), Ravichandran first encountered the laws of thermodynamics as a middle school student in Chennai, India. “They made complete sense to me,” she says. “While looking at the refrigerator at home, I wondered if I might someday build energy systems that utilized these same principles. That’s how it started, and I’ve sustained that interest ever since.”

    She’s now drawing on her knowledge of thermodynamics in research carried out in the laboratory of NSE Assistant Professor Matteo Bucci, her doctoral supervisor. Ravichandran and Bucci are gaining key insights into the “boiling crisis” — a problem that has long saddled the energy industry.

    Ravichandran was well prepared for this work by the time she arrived at MIT in 2017. As an undergraduate at India’s Sastra University, she pursued research on “two-phase flows,” examining the transitions water undergoes between its liquid and gaseous forms. She continued to study droplet evaporation and related phenomena during an internship in early 2017 in the Bucci Lab. That was an eye-opening experience, Ravichandran explains. “Back at my university in India, only 2 to 3 percent of the mechanical engineering students were women, and there were no women on the faculty. It was the first time I had faced social inequities because of my gender, and I went through some struggles, to say the least.”

    MIT offered a welcome contrast. “The amount of freedom I was given made me extremely happy,” she says. “I was always encouraged to explore my ideas, and I always felt included.” She was doubly happy because, midway through the internship, she learned that she’d been accepted to MIT’s graduate program.

    As a PhD student, her research has followed a similar path. She continues to study boiling and heat transfer, but Bucci gave this work some added urgency. They’re now investigating the aforementioned boiling crisis, which affects nuclear reactors and other kinds of power plants that rely on steam generation to drive turbines. In a light water nuclear reactor, water is heated by fuel rods in which nuclear fission has occurred. Heat removal is most efficient when the water circulating past the rods boils. However, if too many bubbles form on the surface, enveloping the fuel rods in a layer of vapor, heat transfer is greatly reduced. That’s not only diminishes power generation, it can also be dangerous because the fuel rods must be continuously cooled to avoid a dreaded meltdown accident.

    Nuclear plants operate at low power ratings to provide an ample safety margin and thereby prevent such a scenario from occurring. Ravichandran believes these standards may be overly cautious, owing to the fact that people aren’t yet sure of the conditions that bring about the boiling crisis. This hurts the economic viability of nuclear power, she says, at a time when we desperately need carbon-free power sources. But Ravichandran and other researchers in the Bucci Lab are starting to fill some major gaps in our understanding.

    They initially ran experiments to determine how quickly bubbles form when water hits a hot surface, how big the bubbles get, how long they grow, and how the surface temperature changes. “A typical experiment lasted two minutes, but it took more than three weeks to pick out every bubble that formed and track its growth and evolution,” Ravichandran explains.

    To streamline this process, she and Bucci are implementing a machine learning approach, based on neural network technology. Neural networks are good at recognizing patterns, including those associated with bubble nucleation. “These networks are data hungry,” Ravichandran says. “The more data they’re fed, the better they perform.” The networks were trained on experimental results pertaining to bubble formation on different surfaces; the networks were then tested on surfaces for which the NSE researchers had no data and didn’t know what to expect.

    After gaining experimental validation of the output from the machine learning models, the team is now trying to get these models to make reliable predictions as to when the bubble crisis, itself, will occur. The ultimate goal is to have a fully autonomous system that can not only predict the boiling crisis, but also show why it happens and automatically shut down experiments before things go too far and lab equipment starts melting.

    In the meantime, Ravichandran and Bucci have made some important theoretical advances, which they report on in a recently published paper for Applied Physics Letters. There had been a debate in the nuclear engineering community as to whether the boiling crisis is caused by bubbles covering the fuel rod surface or due to bubbles growing on top of each other, extending outward from the surface. Ravichandran and Bucci determined that it is a surface-level phenomenon. In addition, they’ve identified the three main factors that trigger the boiling crisis. First, there’s the number of bubbles that form over a given surface area and, second, the average bubble size. The third factor is the product of the bubble frequency (the number of bubbles forming within a second at a given site) and the time it takes for a bubble to reach its full size.

    Ravichandran is happy to have shed some new light on this issue but acknowledges that there’s still much work to be done. Although her research agenda is ambitious and nearly all consuming, she never forgets where she came from and the sense of isolation she felt while studying engineering as an undergraduate. She has, on her own initiative, been mentoring female engineering students in India, providing both research guidance and career advice.

    “I sometimes feel there was a reason I went through those early hardships,” Ravichandran says. “That’s what made me decide that I want to be an educator.” She’s also grateful for the opportunities that have opened up for her since coming to MIT. A recipient of a 2021-22 MathWorks Engineering Fellowship, she says, “now it feels like the only limits on me are those that I’ve placed on myself.” More

  • in

    Using graphene foam to filter toxins from drinking water

    Some kinds of water pollution, such as algal blooms and plastics that foul rivers, lakes, and marine environments, lie in plain sight. But other contaminants are not so readily apparent, which makes their impact potentially more dangerous. Among these invisible substances is uranium. Leaching into water resources from mining operations, nuclear waste sites, or from natural subterranean deposits, the element can now be found flowing out of taps worldwide.

    In the United States alone, “many areas are affected by uranium contamination, including the High Plains and Central Valley aquifers, which supply drinking water to 6 million people,” says Ahmed Sami Helal, a postdoc in the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering. This contamination poses a near and present danger. “Even small concentrations are bad for human health,” says Ju Li, the Battelle Energy Alliance Professor of Nuclear Science and Engineering and professor of materials science and engineering.

    Now, a team led by Li has devised a highly efficient method for removing uranium from drinking water. Applying an electric charge to graphene oxide foam, the researchers can capture uranium in solution, which precipitates out as a condensed solid crystal. The foam may be reused up to seven times without losing its electrochemical properties. “Within hours, our process can purify a large quantity of drinking water below the EPA limit for uranium,” says Li.

    A paper describing this work was published in this week Advanced Materials. The two first co-authors are Helal and Chao Wang, a postdoc at MIT during the study, who is now with the School of Materials Science and Engineering at Tongji University, Shanghai. Researchers from Argonne National Laboratory, Taiwan’s National Chiao Tung University, and the University of Tokyo also participated in the research. The Defense Threat Reduction Agency (U.S. Department of Defense) funded later stages of this work.

    Targeting the contaminant

    The project, launched three years ago, began as an effort to find better approaches to environmental cleanup of heavy metals from mining sites. To date, remediation methods for such metals as chromium, cadmium, arsenic, lead, mercury, radium, and uranium have proven limited and expensive. “These techniques are highly sensitive to organics in water, and are poor at separating out the heavy metal contaminants,” explains Helal. “So they involve long operation times, high capital costs, and at the end of extraction, generate more toxic sludge.”

    To the team, uranium seemed a particularly attractive target. Field testing from the U.S. Geological Service and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has revealed unhealthy levels of uranium moving into reservoirs and aquifers from natural rock sources in the northeastern United States, from ponds and pits storing old nuclear weapons and fuel in places like Hanford, Washington, and from mining activities located in many western states. This kind of contamination is prevalent in many other nations as well. An alarming number of these sites show uranium concentrations close to or above the EPA’s recommended ceiling of 30 parts per billion (ppb) — a level linked to kidney damage, cancer risk, and neurobehavioral changes in humans.

    The critical challenge lay in finding a practical remediation process exclusively sensitive to uranium, capable of extracting it from solution without producing toxic residues. And while earlier research showed that electrically charged carbon fiber could filter uranium from water, the results were partial and imprecise.

    Wang managed to crack these problems — based on her investigation of the behavior of graphene foam used for lithium-sulfur batteries. “The physical performance of this foam was unique because of its ability to attract certain chemical species to its surface,” she says. “I thought the ligands in graphene foam would work well with uranium.”

    Simple, efficient, and clean

    The team set to work transforming graphene foam into the equivalent of a uranium magnet. They learned that by sending an electric charge through the foam, splitting water and releasing hydrogen, they could increase the local pH and induce a chemical change that pulled uranium ions out of solution. The researchers found that the uranium would graft itself onto the foam’s surface, where it formed a never-before-seen crystalline uranium hydroxide. On reversal of the electric charge, the mineral, which resembles fish scales, slipped easily off the foam.

    It took hundreds of tries to get the chemical composition and electrolysis just right. “We kept changing the functional chemical groups to get them to work correctly,” says Helal. “And the foam was initially quite fragile, tending to break into pieces, so we needed to make it stronger and more durable,” says Wang.

    This uranium filtration process is simple, efficient, and clean, according to Li: “Each time it’s used, our foam can capture four times its own weight of uranium, and we can achieve an extraction capacity of 4,000 mg per gram, which is a major improvement over other methods,” he says. “We’ve also made a major breakthrough in reusability, because the foam can go through seven cycles without losing its extraction efficiency.” The graphene foam functions as well in seawater, where it reduces uranium concentrations from 3 parts per million to 19.9 ppb, showing that other ions in the brine do not interfere with filtration.

    The team believes its low-cost, effective device could become a new kind of home water filter, fitting on faucets like those of commercial brands. “Some of these filters already have activated carbon, so maybe we could modify these, add low-voltage electricity to filter uranium,” says Li.

    “The uranium extraction this device achieves is very impressive when compared to existing methods,” says Ho Jin Ryu, associate professor of nuclear and quantum engineering at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology. Ryu, who was not involved in the research, believes that the demonstration of graphene foam reusability is a “significant advance,” and that “the technology of local pH control to enhance uranium deposition will be impactful because the scientific principle can be applied more generally to heavy metal extraction from polluted water.”

    The researchers have already begun investigating broader applications of their method. “There is a science to this, so we can modify our filters to be selective for other heavy metals such as lead, mercury, and cadmium,” says Li. He notes that radium is another significant danger for locales in the United States and elsewhere that lack resources for reliable drinking water infrastructure.

    “In the future, instead of a passive water filter, we could be using a smart filter powered by clean electricity that turns on electrolytic action, which could extract multiple toxic metals, tell you when to regenerate the filter, and give you quality assurance about the water you’re drinking.” More

  • in

    Vapor-collection technology saves water while clearing the air

    About two-fifths of all the water that gets withdrawn from lakes, rivers, and wells in the U.S. is used not for agriculture, drinking, or sanitation, but to cool the power plants that provide electricity from fossil fuels or nuclear power. Over 65 percent of these plants use evaporative cooling, leading to huge white plumes that billow from their cooling towers, which can be a nuisance and, in some cases, even contribute to dangerous driving conditions.

    Now, a small company based on technology recently developed at MIT by the Varanasi Research Group is hoping to reduce both the water needs at these plants and the resultant plumes — and to potentially help alleviate water shortages in areas where power plants put pressure on local water systems.

    The technology is surprisingly simple in principle, but developing it to the point where it can now be tested at full scale on industrial plants was a more complex proposition. That required the real-world experience that the company’s founders gained from installing prototype systems, first on MIT’s natural-gas-powered cogeneration plant and then on MIT’s nuclear research reactor.

    In these demanding tests, which involved exposure to not only the heat and vibrations of a working industrial plant but also the rigors of New England winters, the system proved its effectiveness at both eliminating the vapor plume and recapturing water. And, it purified the water in the process, so that it was 100 times cleaner than the incoming cooling water. The system is now being prepared for full-scale tests in a commercial power plant and in a chemical processing plant.

    “Campus as a living laboratory”

    The technology was originally envisioned by professor of mechanical engineering Kripa Varanasi to develop efficient water-recovery systems by capturing water droplets from both natural fog and plumes from power plant cooling towers. The project began as part of doctoral thesis research of Maher Damak PhD ’18, with funding from the MIT Tata Center for Technology and Design, to improve the efficiency of fog-harvesting systems like the ones used in some arid coastal regions as a source of potable water. Those systems, which generally consist of plastic or metal mesh hung vertically in the path of fogbanks, are extremely inefficient, capturing only about 1 to 3 percent of the water droplets that pass through them.

    Varanasi and Damak found that vapor collection could be made much more efficient by first zapping the tiny droplets of water with a beam of electrically charged particles, or ions, to give each droplet a slight electric charge. Then, the stream of droplets passes through a wire mesh, like a window screen, that has an opposite electrical charge. This causes the droplets to be strongly attracted to the mesh, where they fall away due to gravity and can be collected in trays placed below the mesh.

    Lab tests showed the concept worked, and the researchers, joined by Karim Khalil PhD ’18, won the MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition in 2018 for the basic concept. The nascent company, which they called Infinite Cooling, with Damak as CEO, Khalil as CTO, and Varanasi as chairperson, immediately went to work setting up a test installation on one of the cooling towers of MIT’s natural-gas-powered Central Utility Plant, with funding from the MIT Office of Sustainability. After experimenting with various configurations, they were able to show that the system could indeed eliminate the plume and produce water of high purity.

    Professor Jacopo Buongiorno in the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering immediately spotted a good opportunity for collaboration, offering the use of MIT’s Nuclear Reactor Laboratory research facility for further testing of the system with the help of NRL engineer Ed Block. With its 24/7 operation and its higher-temperature vapor emissions, the plant would provide a more stringent real-world test of the system, as well as proving its effectiveness in an actual operating reactor licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, an important step in “de-risking” the technology so that electric utilities could feel confident in adopting the system.

    After the system was installed above one of the plant’s four cooling towers, testing showed that the water being collected was more than 100 times cleaner than the feedwater coming into the cooling system. It also proved that the installation — which, unlike the earlier version, had its mesh screens mounted vertically, parallel to the vapor stream — had no effect at all on the operation of the plant. Video of the tests dramatically illustrates how as soon as the power is switched on to the collecting mesh, the white plume of vapor immediately disappears completely.

    The high temperature and volume of the vapor plume from the reactor’s cooling towers represented “kind of a worst-case scenario in terms of plumes,” Damak says, “so if we can capture that, we can basically capture anything.”

    Working with MIT’s Nuclear Reactor Laboratory, Varanasi says, “has been quite an important step because it helped us to test it at scale. … It really both validated the water quality and the performance of the system.” The process, he says, “shows the importance of using the campus as a living laboratory. It allows us to do these kinds of experiments at scale, and also showed the ability to sustainably reduce the water footprint of the campus.”

    Far-reaching benefits

    Power plant plumes are often considered an eyesore and can lead to local opposition to new power plants because of the potential for obscured views, and even potential traffic hazards when the obscuring plumes blow across roadways. “The ability to eliminate the plumes could be an important benefit, allowing plants to be sited in locations that might otherwise be restricted,” Buongiorno says. At the same time, the system could eliminate a significant amount of water used by the plants and then lost to the sky, potentially alleviating pressure on local water systems, which could be especially helpful in arid regions.

    The system is essentially a distillation process, and the pure water it produces could go into power plant boilers — which are separate from the cooling system — that require high-purity water. That might reduce the need for both fresh water and purification systems for the boilers.

    What’s more, in many arid coastal areas power plants are cooled directly with seawater. This system would essentially add a water desalination capability to the plant, at a fraction of the cost of building a new standalone desalination plant, and at an even smaller fraction of its operating costs since the heat would essentially be provided for free.

    Contamination of water is typically measured by testing its electrical conductivity, which increases with the amount of salts and other contaminants it contains. Water used in power plant cooling systems typically measures 3,000 microsiemens per centimeter, Khalil explains, while the water supply in the City of Cambridge is typically around 500 or 600 microsiemens per centimeter. The water captured by this system, he says, typically measures below 50 microsiemens per centimeter.

    Thanks to the validation provided by the testing on MIT’s plants, the company has now been able to secure arrangements for its first two installations on operating commercial plants, which should begin later this year. One is a 900-megawatt power plant where the system’s clean water production will be a major advantage, and the other is at a chemical manufacturing plant in the Midwest.

    In many locations power plants have to pay for the water they use for cooling, Varanasi says, and the new system is expected to reduce the need for water by up to 20 percent. For a typical power plant, that alone could account for about a million dollars saved in water costs per year, he says.

    “Innovation has been a hallmark of the U.S. commercial industry for more than six decades,” says Maria G. Korsnick, president and CEO of the Nuclear Energy Institute, who was not involved in the research. “As the changing climate impacts every aspect of life, including global water supplies, companies across the supply chain are innovating for solutions. The testing of this innovative technology at MIT provides a valuable basis for its consideration in commercial applications.” More