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    MIT expands research collaboration with Commonwealth Fusion Systems to build net energy fusion machine, SPARC

    MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center (PSFC) will substantially expand its fusion energy research and education activities under a new five-year agreement with Institute spinout Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS).

    “This expanded relationship puts MIT and PSFC in a prime position to be an even stronger academic leader that can help deliver the research and education needs of the burgeoning fusion energy industry, in part by utilizing the world’s first burning plasma and net energy fusion machine, SPARC,” says PSFC director Dennis Whyte. “CFS will build SPARC and develop a commercial fusion product, while MIT PSFC will focus on its core mission of cutting-edge research and education.”

    Commercial fusion energy has the potential to play a significant role in combating climate change, and there is a concurrent increase in interest from the energy sector, governments, and foundations. The new agreement, administered by the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI), where CFS is a startup member, will help PSFC expand its fusion technology efforts with a wider variety of sponsors. The collaboration enables rapid execution at scale and technology transfer into the commercial sector as soon as possible.

    This new agreement doubles CFS’ financial commitment to PSFC, enabling greater recruitment and support of students, staff, and faculty. “We’ll significantly increase the number of graduate students and postdocs, and just as important they will be working on a more diverse set of fusion science and technology topics,” notes Whyte. It extends the collaboration between PSFC and CFS that resulted in numerous advances toward fusion power plants, including last fall’s demonstration of a high-temperature superconducting (HTS) fusion electromagnet with record-setting field strength of 20 tesla.

    The combined magnetic fusion efforts at PSFC will surpass those in place during the operations of the pioneering Alcator C-Mod tokamak device that operated from 1993 to 2016. This increase in activity reflects a moment when multiple fusion energy technologies are seeing rapidly accelerating development worldwide, and the emergence of a new fusion energy industry that would require thousands of trained people.

    MITEI director Robert Armstrong adds, “Our goal from the beginning was to create a membership model that would allow startups who have specific research challenges to leverage the MITEI ecosystem, including MIT faculty, students, and other MITEI members. The team at the PSFC and MITEI have worked seamlessly to support CFS, and we are excited for this next phase of the relationship.”

    PSFC is supporting CFS’ efforts toward realizing the SPARC fusion platform, which facilitates rapid development and refinement of elements (including HTS magnets) needed to build ARC, a compact, modular, high-field fusion power plant that would set the stage for commercial fusion energy production. The concepts originated in Whyte’s nuclear science and engineering class 22.63 (Principles of Fusion Engineering) and have been carried forward by students and PSFC staff, many of whom helped found CFS; the new activity will expand research into advanced technologies for the envisioned pilot plant.

    “This has been an incredibly effective collaboration that has resulted in a major breakthrough for commercial fusion with the successful demonstration of revolutionary fusion magnet technology that will enable the world’s first commercially relevant net energy fusion device, SPARC, currently under construction,” says Bob Mumgaard SM ’15, PhD ’15, CEO of Commonwealth Fusion Systems. “We look forward to this next phase in the collaboration with MIT as we tackle the critical research challenges ahead for the next steps toward fusion power plant development.”

    In the push for commercial fusion energy, the next five years are critical, requiring intensive work on materials longevity, heat transfer, fuel recycling, maintenance, and other crucial aspects of power plant development. It will need innovation from almost every engineering discipline. “Having great teams working now, it will cut the time needed to move from SPARC to ARC, and really unleash the creativity. And the thing MIT does so well is cut across disciplines,” says Whyte.

    “To address the climate crisis, the world needs to deploy existing clean energy solutions as widely and as quickly as possible, while at the same time developing new technologies — and our goal is that those new technologies will include fusion power,” says Maria T. Zuber, MIT’s vice president for research. “To make new climate solutions a reality, we need focused, sustained collaborations like the one between MIT and Commonwealth Fusion Systems. Delivering fusion power onto the grid is a monumental challenge, and the combined capabilities of these two organizations are what the challenge demands.”

    On a strategic level, climate change and the imperative need for widely implementable carbon-free energy have helped orient the PSFC team toward scalability. “Building one or 10 fusion plants doesn’t make a difference — we have to build thousands,” says Whyte. “The design decisions we make will impact the ability to do that down the road. The real enemy here is time, and we want to remove as many impediments as possible and commit to funding a new generation of scientific leaders. Those are critically important in a field with as much interdisciplinary integration as fusion.” More

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    Machine learning, harnessed to extreme computing, aids fusion energy development

    MIT research scientists Pablo Rodriguez-Fernandez and Nathan Howard have just completed one of the most demanding calculations in fusion science — predicting the temperature and density profiles of a magnetically confined plasma via first-principles simulation of plasma turbulence. Solving this problem by brute force is beyond the capabilities of even the most advanced supercomputers. Instead, the researchers used an optimization methodology developed for machine learning to dramatically reduce the CPU time required while maintaining the accuracy of the solution.

    Fusion energyFusion offers the promise of unlimited, carbon-free energy through the same physical process that powers the sun and the stars. It requires heating the fuel to temperatures above 100 million degrees, well above the point where the electrons are stripped from their atoms, creating a form of matter called plasma. On Earth, researchers use strong magnetic fields to isolate and insulate the hot plasma from ordinary matter. The stronger the magnetic field, the better the quality of the insulation that it provides.

    Rodriguez-Fernandez and Howard have focused on predicting the performance expected in the SPARC device, a compact, high-magnetic-field fusion experiment, currently under construction by the MIT spin-out company Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS) and researchers from MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center. While the calculation required an extraordinary amount of computer time, over 8 million CPU-hours, what was remarkable was not how much time was used, but how little, given the daunting computational challenge.

    The computational challenge of fusion energyTurbulence, which is the mechanism for most of the heat loss in a confined plasma, is one of the science’s grand challenges and the greatest problem remaining in classical physics. The equations that govern fusion plasmas are well known, but analytic solutions are not possible in the regimes of interest, where nonlinearities are important and solutions encompass an enormous range of spatial and temporal scales. Scientists resort to solving the equations by numerical simulation on computers. It is no accident that fusion researchers have been pioneers in computational physics for the last 50 years.

    One of the fundamental problems for researchers is reliably predicting plasma temperature and density given only the magnetic field configuration and the externally applied input power. In confinement devices like SPARC, the external power and the heat input from the fusion process are lost through turbulence in the plasma. The turbulence itself is driven by the difference in the extremely high temperature of the plasma core and the relatively cool temperatures of the plasma edge (merely a few million degrees). Predicting the performance of a self-heated fusion plasma therefore requires a calculation of the power balance between the fusion power input and the losses due to turbulence.

    These calculations generally start by assuming plasma temperature and density profiles at a particular location, then computing the heat transported locally by turbulence. However, a useful prediction requires a self-consistent calculation of the profiles across the entire plasma, which includes both the heat input and turbulent losses. Directly solving this problem is beyond the capabilities of any existing computer, so researchers have developed an approach that stitches the profiles together from a series of demanding but tractable local calculations. This method works, but since the heat and particle fluxes depend on multiple parameters, the calculations can be very slow to converge.

    However, techniques emerging from the field of machine learning are well suited to optimize just such a calculation. Starting with a set of computationally intensive local calculations run with the full-physics, first-principles CGYRO code (provided by a team from General Atomics led by Jeff Candy) Rodriguez-Fernandez and Howard fit a surrogate mathematical model, which was used to explore and optimize a search within the parameter space. The results of the optimization were compared to the exact calculations at each optimum point, and the system was iterated to a desired level of accuracy. The researchers estimate that the technique reduced the number of runs of the CGYRO code by a factor of four.

    New approach increases confidence in predictionsThis work, described in a recent publication in the journal Nuclear Fusion, is the highest fidelity calculation ever made of the core of a fusion plasma. It refines and confirms predictions made with less demanding models. Professor Jonathan Citrin, of the Eindhoven University of Technology and leader of the fusion modeling group for DIFFER, the Dutch Institute for Fundamental Energy Research, commented: “The work significantly accelerates our capabilities in more routinely performing ultra-high-fidelity tokamak scenario prediction. This algorithm can help provide the ultimate validation test of machine design or scenario optimization carried out with faster, more reduced modeling, greatly increasing our confidence in the outcomes.” 

    In addition to increasing confidence in the fusion performance of the SPARC experiment, this technique provides a roadmap to check and calibrate reduced physics models, which run with a small fraction of the computational power. Such models, cross-checked against the results generated from turbulence simulations, will provide a reliable prediction before each SPARC discharge, helping to guide experimental campaigns and improving the scientific exploitation of the device. It can also be used to tweak and improve even simple data-driven models, which run extremely quickly, allowing researchers to sift through enormous parameter ranges to narrow down possible experiments or possible future machines.

    The research was funded by CFS, with computational support from the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center, a U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science User Facility. More

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    Using excess heat to improve electrolyzers and fuel cells

    Reducing the use of fossil fuels will have unintended consequences for the power-generation industry and beyond. For example, many industrial chemical processes use fossil-fuel byproducts as precursors to things like asphalt, glycerine, and other important chemicals. One solution to reduce the impact of the loss of fossil fuels on industrial chemical processes is to store and use the heat that nuclear fission produces. New MIT research has dramatically improved a way to put that heat toward generating chemicals through a process called electrolysis. 

    Electrolyzers are devices that use electricity to split water (H2O) and generate molecules of hydrogen (H2) and oxygen (O2). Hydrogen is used in fuel cells to generate electricity and drive electric cars or drones or in industrial operations like the production of steel, ammonia, and polymers. Electrolyzers can also take in water and carbon dioxide (CO2) and produce oxygen and ethylene (C2H4), a chemical used in polymers and elsewhere.

    There are three main types of electrolyzers. One type works at room temperature, but has downsides; they’re inefficient and require rare metals, such as platinum. A second type is more efficient but runs at high temperatures, above 700 degrees Celsius. But metals corrode at that temperature, and the devices need expensive sealing and insulation. The third type would be a Goldilocks solution for nuclear heat if it were perfected, running at 300-600 C and requiring mostly cheap materials like stainless steel. These cells have never been operated as efficiently as theory says they should. The new work, published this month in Nature, both illuminates the problem and offers a solution.

    A sandwich mystery

    The intermediate-temperature devices use what are called protonic ceramic electrochemical cells. Each cell is a sandwich, with a dense electrolyte layered between two porous electrodes. Water vapor is pumped into the top electrode. A wire on the side connects the two electrodes, and externally generated electricity runs from the top to the bottom. The voltage pulls electrons out of the water, which splits the molecule, releasing oxygen. A hydrogen atom without an electron is just a proton. The protons get pulled through the electrolyte to rejoin with the electrons at the bottom electrode and form H2 molecules, which are then collected.

    On its own, the electrolyte in the middle, made mainly of barium, cerium, and zirconium, conducts protons very well. “But when we put the same material into this three-layer device, the proton conductivity of the full cell is pretty bad,” says Yanhao Dong, a postdoc in MIT’s Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering and a paper co-author. “Its conductivity is only about 50 percent of the bulk form’s. We wondered why there’s an inconsistency here.”

    A couple of clues pointed them in the right direction. First, if they don’t prepare the cell very carefully, the top layer, only about 20 microns (.02 millimeters) thick, doesn’t stay attached. “Sometimes if you use just Scotch tape, it will peel off,” Dong says. Second, when they looked at a cross section of a device using a scanning electron microscope, they saw that the top surface of the electrolyte layer was flat, whereas the bottom surface of the porous electrode sitting on it was bumpy, and the two came into contact in only a few places. They didn’t bond well. That precarious interface leads to both structural de-lamination and poor proton passage from the electrode to the electrolyte.

    Acidic solution

    The solution turned out to be simple: researchers roughed up the top of the electrolyte. Specifically, they applied acid for 10 minutes, which etched grooves into the surface. Ju Li, the Battelle Energy Alliance Professor in Nuclear Engineering and professor of materials science and engineering at MIT, and a paper co-author, likens it to sandblasting a surface before applying paint to increase adhesion. Their acid-treated cells produced about 200 percent more hydrogen per area at 1.5 volts at 600 C than did any previous cell of its type, and worked well down to 350 C with very little performance decay over extended operation. 

    “The authors reported a surprisingly simple yet highly effective surface treatment to dramatically improve the interface,” says Liangbing Hu, the director of the Center for Materials Innovation at the Maryland Energy Innovation Institute, who was not involved in the work. He calls the cell performance “exceptional.”

    “We are excited and surprised” by the results, Dong says. “The engineering solution seems quite simple. And that’s actually good, because it makes it very applicable to real applications.” In a practical product, many such cells would be stacked together to form a module. MIT’s partner in the project, Idaho National Laboratory, is very strong in engineering and prototyping, so Li expects to see electrolyzers based on this technology at scale before too long. “At the materials level, this is a breakthrough that shows that at a real-device scale you can work at this sweet spot of temperature of 350 to 600 degrees Celsius for nuclear fission and fusion reactors,” he says.

    “Reduced operating temperature enables cheaper materials for the large-scale assembly, including the stack,” says Idaho National Laboratory researcher and paper co-author Dong Ding. “The technology operates within the same temperature range as several important, current industrial processes, including ammonia production and CO2 reduction. Matching these temperatures will expedite the technology’s adoption within the existing industry.”

    “This is very significant for both Idaho National Lab and us,” Li adds, “because it bridges nuclear energy and renewable electricity.” He notes that the technology could also help fuel cells, which are basically electrolyzers run in reverse, using green hydrogen or hydrocarbons to generate electricity. According to Wei Wu, a materials scientist at Idaho National Laboratory and a paper co-author, “this technique is quite universal and compatible with other solid electrochemical devices.”

    Dong says it’s rare for a paper to advance both science and engineering to such a degree. “We are happy to combine those together and get both very good scientific understanding and also very good real-world performance.”

    This work, done in collaboration with Idaho National Laboratory, New Mexico State University, and the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, was funded, in part, by the U.S. Department of Energy. More

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    Finding the questions that guide MIT fusion research

    “One of the things I learned was, doing good science isn’t so much about finding the answers as figuring out what the important questions are.”

    As Martin Greenwald retires from the responsibilities of senior scientist and deputy director of the MIT Plasma Science and Fusion Center (PSFC), he reflects on his almost 50 years of science study, 43 of them as a researcher at MIT, pursuing the question of how to make the carbon-free energy of fusion a reality.

    Most of Greenwald’s important questions about fusion began after graduating from MIT with a BS in both physics and chemistry. Beginning graduate work at the University of California at Berkeley, he felt compelled to learn more about fusion as an energy source that could have “a real societal impact.” At the time, researchers were exploring new ideas for devices that could create and confine fusion plasmas. Greenwald worked on Berkeley’s “alternate concept” TORMAC, a Toroidal Magnetic Cusp. “It didn’t work out very well,” he laughs. “The first thing I was known for was making the measurements that shut down the program.”

    Believing the temperature of the plasma generated by the device would not be as high as his group leader expected, Greenwald developed hardware that could measure the low temperatures predicted by his own “back of the envelope calculations.” As he anticipated, his measurements showed that “this was not a fusion plasma; this was hardly a confined plasma at all.”

    With a PhD from Berkeley, Greenwald returned to MIT for a research position at the PSFC, attracted by the center’s “esprit de corps.”

    He arrived in time to participate in the final experiments on Alcator A, the first in a series of tokamaks built at MIT, all characterized by compact size and featuring high-field magnets. The tokamak design was then becoming favored as the most effective route to fusion: its doughnut-shaped vacuum chamber, surrounded by electromagnets, could confine the turbulent plasma long enough, while increasing its heat and density, to make fusion occur.

    Alcator A showed that the energy confinement time improves in relation to increasing plasma density. MIT’s succeeding device, Alcator C, was designed to use higher magnetic fields, boosting expectations that it would reach higher densities and better confinement. To attain these goals, however, Greenwald had to pursue a new technique that increased density by injecting pellets of frozen fuel into the plasma, a method he likens to throwing “snowballs in hell.” This work was notable for the creation of a new regime of enhanced plasma confinement on Alcator C. In those experiments, a confined plasma surpassed for the first time one of the two Lawson criteria — the minimum required value for the product of the plasma density and confinement time — for making net power from fusion. This had been a milestone for fusion research since their publication by John Lawson in 1957.

    Greenwald continued to make a name for himself as part of a larger study into the physics of the Compact Ignition Tokamak — a high-field burning plasma experiment that the U.S. program was proposing to build in the late 1980s. The result, unexpectedly, was a new scaling law, later known as the “Greenwald Density Limit,” and a new theory for the mechanism of the limit. It has been used to accurately predict performance on much larger machines built since.

    The center’s next tokamak, Alcator C-Mod, started operation in 1993 and ran for more than 20 years, with Greenwald as the chair of its Experimental Program Committee. Larger than Alcator C, the new device supported a highly shaped plasma, strong radiofrequency heating, and an all-metal plasma-facing first wall. All of these would eventually be required in a fusion power system.

    C-Mod proved to be MIT’s most enduring fusion experiment to date, producing important results for 20 years. During that time Greenwald contributed not only to the experiments, but to mentoring the next generation. Research scientist Ryan Sweeney notes that “Martin quickly gained my trust as a mentor, in part due to his often casual dress and slightly untamed hair, which are embodiments of his transparency and his focus on what matters. He can quiet a room of PhDs and demand attention not by intimidation, but rather by his calmness and his ability to bring clarity to complicated problems, be they scientific or human in nature.”

    Greenwald worked closely with the group of students who, in PSFC Director Dennis Whyte’s class, came up with the tokamak concept that evolved into SPARC. MIT is now pursuing this compact, high-field tokamak with Commonwealth Fusion Systems, a startup that grew out of the collective enthusiasm for this concept, and the growing realization it could work. Greenwald now heads the Physics Group for the SPARC project at MIT. He has helped confirm the device’s physics basis in order to predict performance and guide engineering decisions.

    “Martin’s multifaceted talents are thoroughly embodied by, and imprinted on, SPARC” says Whyte. “First, his leadership in its plasma confinement physics validation and publication place SPARC on a firm scientific footing. Secondly, the impact of the density limit he discovered, which shows that fuel density increases with magnetic field and decreasing the size of the tokamak, is critical in obtaining high fusion power density not just in SPARC, but in future power plants. Third, and perhaps most impressive, is Martin’s mentorship of the SPARC generation of leadership.”

    Greenwald’s expertise and easygoing personality have made him an asset as head of the PSFC Office for Computer Services and group leader for data acquisition and computing, and sought for many professional committees. He has been an APS Fellow since 2000, and was an APS Distinguished Lecturer in Plasma Physics (2001-02). He was also presented in 2014 with a Leadership Award from Fusion Power Associates. He is currently an associate editor for Physics of Plasmas and a member of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory Physical Sciences Directorate External Review Committee.

    Although leaving his full-time responsibilities, Greenwald will remain at MIT as a visiting scientist, a role he says will allow him to “stick my nose into everything without being responsible for anything.”

    “At some point in the race you have to hand off the baton,“ he says. “And it doesn’t mean you’re not interested in the outcome; and it doesn’t mean you’re just going to walk away into the stands. I want to be there at the end when we succeed.” More

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    Leveraging science and technology against the world’s top problems

    Looking back on nearly a half-century at MIT, Richard K. Lester, associate provost and Japan Steel Industry Professor, sees a “somewhat eccentric professional trajectory.”

    But while his path has been irregular, there has been a clearly defined through line, Lester says: the emergence of new science and new technologies, the potential of these developments to shake up the status quo and address some of society’s most consequential problems, and what the outcomes might mean for America’s place in the world.

    Perhaps no assignment in Lester’s portfolio better captures this theme than the new MIT Climate Grand Challenges competition. Spearheaded by Lester and Maria Zuber, MIT vice president for research, and launched at the height of the pandemic in summer 2020, this initiative is designed to mobilize the entire MIT research community around tackling “the really hard, challenging problems currently standing in the way of an effective global response to the climate emergency,” says Lester. “The focus is on those problems where progress requires developing and applying frontier knowledge in the natural and social sciences and cutting-edge technologies. This is the MIT community swinging for the fences in areas where we have a comparative advantage.”This is a passion project for him, not least because it has engaged colleagues from nearly all of MIT’s departments. After nearly 100 initial ideas were submitted by more than 300 faculty, 27 teams were named finalists and received funding to develop comprehensive research and innovation plans in such areas as decarbonizing complex industries; risk forecasting and adaptation; advancing climate equity; and carbon removal, management, and storage. In April, a small subset of this group will become multiyear flagship projects, augmenting the work of existing MIT units that are pursuing climate research. Lester is sunny in the face of these extraordinarily complex problems. “This is a bottom-up effort with exciting proposals, and where the Institute is collectively committed — it’s MIT at its best.”

    Nuclear to the core

    This initiative carries a particular resonance for Lester, who remains deeply engaged in nuclear engineering. “The role of nuclear energy is central and will need to become even more central if we’re to succeed in addressing the climate challenge,” he says. He also acknowledges that for nuclear energy technologies — both fission and fusion — to play a vital role in decarbonizing the economy, they must not just win “in the court of public opinion, but in the marketplace,” he says. “Over the years, my research has sought to elucidate what needs to be done to overcome these obstacles.”

    In fact, Lester has been campaigning for much of his career for a U.S. nuclear innovation agenda, a commitment that takes on increased urgency as the contours of the climate crisis sharpen. He argues for the rapid development and testing of nuclear technologies that can complement the renewable but intermittent energy sources of sun and wind. Whether powerful, large-scale, molten-salt-cooled reactors or small, modular, light water reactors, nuclear batteries or promising new fusion projects, U.S. energy policy must embrace nuclear innovation, says Lester, or risk losing the high-stakes race for a sustainable future.

    Chancing into a discipline

    Lester’s introduction to nuclear science was pure happenstance.

    Born in the English industrial city of Leeds, he grew up in a musical family and played piano, violin, and then viola. “It was a big part of my life,” he says, and for a time, music beckoned as a career. He tumbled into a chemical engineering concentration at Imperial College, London, after taking a job in a chemical factory following high school. “There’s a certain randomness to life, and in my case, it’s reflected in my choice of major, which had a very large impact on my ultimate career.”

    In his second year, Lester talked his way into running a small experiment in the university’s research reactor, on radiation effects in materials. “I got hooked, and began thinking of studying nuclear engineering.” But there were few graduate programs in British universities at the time. Then serendipity struck again. The instructor of Lester’s single humanities course at Imperial had previously taught at MIT, and suggested Lester take a look at the nuclear program there. “I will always be grateful to him (and, indirectly, to MIT’s Humanities program) for opening my eyes to the existence of this institution where I’ve spent my whole adult life,” says Lester.

    He arrived at MIT with the notion of mitigating the harms of nuclear weapons. It was a time when the nuclear arms race “was an existential threat in everyone’s life,” he recalls. He targeted his graduate studies on nuclear proliferation. But he also encountered an electrifying study by MIT meteorologist Jule Charney. “Professor Charney produced one of the first scientific assessments of the effects on climate of increasing CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere, with quantitative estimates that have not fundamentally changed in 40 years.”

    Lester shifted directions. “I came to MIT to work on nuclear security, but stayed in the nuclear field because of the contributions that it can and must make in addressing climate change,” he says.

    Research and policy

    His path forward, Lester believed, would involve applying his science and technology expertise to critical policy problems, grounded in immediate, real-world concerns, and aiming for broad policy impacts. Even as a member of NSE, he joined with colleagues from many MIT departments to study American industrial practices and what was required to make them globally competitive, and then founded MIT’s Industrial Performance Center (IPC). Working at the IPC with interdisciplinary teams of faculty and students on the sources of productivity and innovation, his research took him to many countries at different stages of industrialization, including China, Taiwan, Japan, and Brazil.

    Lester’s wide-ranging work yielded books (including the MIT Press bestseller “Made in America”), advisory positions with governments, corporations, and foundations, and unexpected collaborations. “My interests were always fairly broad, and being at MIT made it possible to team up with world-leading scholars and extraordinary students not just in nuclear engineering, but in many other fields such as political science, economics, and management,” he says.

    Forging cross-disciplinary ties and bringing creative people together around a common goal proved a valuable skill as Lester stepped into positions of ever-greater responsibility at the Institute. He didn’t exactly relish the prospect of a desk job, though. “I religiously avoided administrative roles until I felt I couldn’t keep avoiding them,” he says.

    Today, as associate provost, he tends to MIT’s international activities — a daunting task given increasing scrutiny of research universities’ globe-spanning research partnerships and education of foreign students. But even in the midst of these consuming chores, Lester remains devoted to his home department. “Being a nuclear engineer is a central part of my identity,” he says.

    To students entering the nuclear field nearly 50 years after he did, who are understandably “eager to fix everything that seems wrong immediately,” he has a message: “Be patient. The hard things, the ones that are really worth doing, will take a long time to do.” Putting the climate crisis behind us will take two generations, Lester believes. Current students will start the job, but it will also take the efforts of their children’s generation before it is done.  “So we need you to be energetic and creative, of course, but whatever you do we also need you to be patient and to have ‘stick-to-itiveness’ — and maybe also a moral compass that our generation has lacked.” More

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    MIT Energy Conference focuses on climate’s toughest challenges

    This year’s MIT Energy Conference, the largest student-led event of its kind, included keynote talks and panels that tackled some of the thorniest remaining challenges in the global effort to cut back on climate-altering emissions. These include the production of construction materials such as steel and cement, and the role of transportation including aviation and shipping. While the challenges are formidable, approaches incorporating methods such as fusion, heat pumps, energy efficiency, and the use of hydrogen hold promise, participants said.

    The two-day conference, held on March 31 and April 1 for more than 900 participants, included keynote lectures, 14 panel discussions, a fireside chat, networking events, and more. The event this year included the final round of the annual MIT Climate and Energy Prize, whose winning team receives $100,000 and other support. The prize, awarded since 2007, has led to the creation of more than 220 companies and $1.1 billion in investments.

    This year’s winner is a project that hopes to provide an innovative, efficient waterless washing machine aimed at the vast majority of the world’s people, who still do laundry by hand.

    “A truly consequential moment in history”

    In his opening keynote address Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency, noted that this year’s conference was taking place during the unprovoked invasion of Ukraine by Russia, a leading gas and oil exporter. As a result, “global oil markets are going through a major turmoil,” he said.

    He said that Russian oil exports are expected to drop by 3 million barrels a day, and that international efforts to release reserves and promote increased production elsewhere will help, but will not suffice. “We have to look to other measures” to make up the shortfall, he said, noting that his agency has produced a 10-point plan of measures to help reduce global demand for oil.

    Europe gets 45 percent of its natural gas from Russia, and the agency also has developed a 10-point plan to help alleviate expected shortages there, including measures to improve energy efficiency in homes and industries, promote renewable heating sources, and postpone retirement of some nuclear plants. But he emphasized that “our goals to reach our climate targets should not be yet another victim of Mr. Putin and his allies.”  Unfortunately, Birol said, “I see that addressing climate change is sliding down in the policy agenda of many governments.”

    But he sees reasons for optimism as well, in terms of the feasibility of achieving the global emissions reduction target, agreed to by countries representing 80 percent of the global economy, of reaching net zero carbon dioxide emissions by 2050. The IEA has developed a roadmap for the entire energy sector to get there, which is now used by many governments as a benchmark, according to Birol.

    In addition, the trend is already clear, he said. “More than 90 percent of all power plants installed in the world [last year] were renewable energy,” mainly solar and wind. And 10 percent of cars sold worldwide last year, and 20 percent in Europe, were electric cars. “Please remember that in 2019 it was only 2 percent!” he said. He also predicted that “nuclear is going to make a comeback in many countries,” both in terms of large plants and newer small modular reactors.

    Birol said that “I hope that the current crisis gives governments the impetus to address the energy security concerns, to reach our climate goals, and … [to] choose the right direction at this very important turning point.”

    The conference’s second day began with keynote talks by Gina McCarthy, national climate advisor at the White House Office of Domestic Climate Policy, and Maria Zuber, MIT’s vice president for research. In her address, Zuber said, “This conference comes at a truly consequential moment in history — a moment that puts into stark relief the enormous risks created by our current fossil-fuel based energy system — risks we cannot continue to accept.”

    She added that “time is not on our side.” To meet global commitments for limiting climate impacts, the world needs to reduce emissions by about half by 2030, and get to net zero by 2050. “In other words, we need to transform our entire global energy system in a few decades,” she said. She cited MIT’s “Fast Forward” climate action plan, issued last year, as presenting the two tracks that the world needs to pursue simultaneously: going as far as possible, as fast as possible, with the tools that exist now, while also innovating and investing in new ideas, technologies, practices, and institutions that may be needed to reach the net-zero goal.

    On the first track, she said, citing an IEA report, “from here until 2040, we can get most of the emissions reductions we need with technologies that are currently available or on the verge of becoming commercially available.” These include electrifying and boosting efficiency in buildings, industry, and transportation; increasing the portion of electricity coming from emissions-free sources; and investing in new infrastructure such as electric vehicle charging stations.

    But more than that is needed, she pointed out. For example, the amount of methane that leaks away into the atmosphere from fossil fuel operations is equivalent to all the natural gas used in Europe’s power sector, Zuber said. Recovering and selling that methane can dramatically reduce global methane emissions, often at little or no cost.

    For the longer run, “we need track-two solutions to decarbonize tough industries like aviation, shipping, chemicals, concrete, and steel,” and to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. She described some of the promising technologies that are in the pipeline. Fusion, for example, has moved from being a scientific challenge to an engineering problem whose solution seems well underway, she said.

    Another important area is food-related systems, which currently account for a third of all global emissions. For example, fertilizer production uses a very energy-intensive process, but work on plants engineered to fix nitrogen directly could make a significant dent.

    These and several other advanced research areas may not all pan out, but some undoubtedly will, and will help curb climate change as well as create new jobs and reduce pollution.

    Though the problems we face are complex, they are not insurmountable, Zuber said. “We don’t need a miracle. What we need is to move along the two tracks I’ve outlined with determination, ingenuity, and fierce urgency.”

    The promise and challenges of hydrogen

    Other conference speakers took on some of the less-discussed but crucial areas that also need to be addressed in order to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees. Heavy transportation, and aviation in particular, have been considered especially challenging. In his keynote address, Glenn Llewellyn, vice president for zero-emission aircraft at Airbus, outlined several approaches his company is working on to develop competitive midrange alternative airliners by 2035 that use either batteries or fuel cells powered by hydrogen. The early-stage designs demonstrate that, contrary to some projections, there is a realistic pathway to weaning that industry from its present reliance on fossil fuel, chiefly kerosene.

    Hydrogen has real potential as an aviation fuel, he said, either directly for use in fuel cells for power or burned directly for propulsion, or indirectly as a feedstock for synthetic fuels. Both are being studied by the company, he said, including a hybrid model that uses both hydrogen fuel cells and hydrogen-fueled jet engines. The company projects a range of 2,000 nautical miles for a jet carrying 200 to 300 passengers, he said — all with no direct emissions and no contrails.

    But this vision will not be practical, Llewellyn said, unless economies of scale help to significantly lower the cost of hydrogen production. “Hydrogen is at the hub of aviation decarbonization,” he said. But that kind of price reduction seems quite feasible, he said, given that other major industries are also seriously looking at the use of hydrogen for their own decarbonization plans, including the production of steel and cement.

    Such uses were the subject of a panel discussion entitled “Deploying the Hydrogen Economy.” Hydrogen production technology exists, but not nearly at the scale that’s needed, which is about 500 million tons a year, pointed out moderator Dharik Mallapragada of the MIT Energy Initiative.

    Yet in some applications, the use of hydrogen both reduces emissions and is economically competitive. Preeti Pande of Plug Power said that her company, which produces hydrogen fuel cells, has found a significant market in an unexpected place: fork lifts, used in warehouses and factories worldwide. It turns out that replacing current battery-operated versions with fuel cell versions is a win-win for the companies that use them, saving money while helping to meet decarbonization goals.

    Lindsay Ashby of Avangrid Renewables said that the company has installed fuel-cell buses in Barcelona that run entirely on hydrogen generated by solar panels. The company is also building a 100-megawatt solar facility to produce hydrogen for the production of fertilizer, another major industry in need of decarbonization because of its large emissions footprint. And Brett Perleman of the Center for Houston’s Future said of his city that “we’re already a hydrogen hub today, just not green hydrogen” since the gas is currently mostly produced as a byproduct of fossil fuels. But that is changing rapidly, he said, and Houston, along with several other cities, aims to be a center of activity for hydrogen produced from renewable, non-carbon-emitting sources. They aim to be producing 1,000 tons a day by 2028, “and I think we’ll end up exceeding that,” he said.

    For industries that can switch to renewably generated electricity, that is typically the best choice, Perleman said. “But for those that can’t, hydrogen is a great option,” and that includes aviation, shipping, and rail. “The big oil companies all have plans in place” to develop clean hydrogen production, he said. “It’s not just a dream, but a reality.”

    For shipping, which tends to rely on bunker fuel, a particularly high-emissions fossil fuel, another potential option could be a new generation of small nuclear plants, said Jeff Navin of Terrapower, a company currently developing such units. “Finding replacements for coal, oil, or natural gas for industrial purposes is very hard,” he said, but often what these processes require is consistent high heat, which nuclear can deliver, as long as costs and regulatory issues can be resolved.  

    MIT professor of nuclear engineering Jacopo Buongiorno pointed out that the primary reasons for delays and cost overruns in nuclear plants have had to do with issues at the construction site, many of which could be alleviated by having smaller, factory-built modular plants, or by building multiple units at a time of a standardized design. If the government would take on the nuclear waste disposal, as some other countries have done, then nuclear power could play an important part in the decarbonization of many industries, he said.

    Student-led startups

    The two-day conference concluded with the final round of the annual MIT Climate and Energy Prize, consisting of the five finalist teams presenting brief pitches for their startup company ideas, followed by questions from the panel of judges. This year’s finalists included a team called Muket, dedicated to finding ways of reducing methane emissions from cattle and dairy farms. Feed additives or other measures could cut the emissions by 50 percent, the team estimates.

    A team called Ivu Biologics described a system for incorporating nitrogen-fixing microbes into the coatings of seeds, thereby reducing the need for added fertilizers, whose production is a major greenhouse gas source. The company is making use of seed-coating technology developed at MIT over the last few years. Another team, called Mesophase, also based on MIT-developed technology, aims to replace the condensers used in power plants and other industrial systems with much more efficient versions, thus increasing the energy output from a given amount of fuel or other heat source.

    A team called TerraTrade aims to facilitate the adoption of power purchase agreements by companies, institutions and governments, by acting as a kind of broker to create and administer such agreements, making it easier for even smaller entities to take part in these plans, which help to enable rapid development of renewable fossil-fuel-free energy production.

    The grand prize of $100,000 was awarded to a team called Ultropia, which is developing a combined clothes washer and drier that uses ultrasound instead of water for its cleaning. The system does use a small amount of water, but this can be recycled, making these usable even in areas where water availability is limited. The devices could have a great impact on the estimated 6 billion people in the world today who are still limited to washing clothes by hand, the team says, and because the machines would be so efficient, they would require very little energy to run — a significant improvement over the wider adoption of conventional washers and driers. More

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    Finding her way to fusion

    “I catch myself startling people in public.”

    Zoe Fisher’s animated hands carry part of the conversation as she describes how her naturally loud and expressive laughter turned heads in the streets of Yerevan. There during MIT’s Independent Activities period (IAP), she was helping teach nuclear science at the American University of Armenia, before returning to MIT to pursue fusion research at the Plasma Science and Fusion Center (PSFC).

    Startling people may simply be in Fisher’s DNA. She admits that when she first arrived at MIT, knowing nothing about nuclear science and engineering (NSE), she chose to join that department’s Freshman Pre-Orientation Program (FPOP) “for the shock value.” It was a choice unexpected by family, friends, and mostly herself. Now in her senior year, a 2021 recipient of NSE’s Irving Kaplan Award for academic achievements by a junior and entering a fifth-year master of science program in nuclear fusion, Fisher credits that original spontaneous impulse for introducing her to a subject she found so compelling that, after exploring multiple possibilities, she had to return to it.

    Fisher’s venture to Armenia, under the guidance of NSE associate professor Areg Danagoulian, is not the only time she has taught oversees with MISTI’s Global Teaching Labs, though it is the first time she has taught nuclear science, not to mention thermodynamics and materials science. During IAP 2020 she was a student teacher at a German high school, teaching life sciences, mathematics, and even English to grades five through 12. And after her first year she explored the transportation industry with a mechanical engineering internship in Tuscany, Italy.

    By the time she was ready to declare her NSE major she had sampled the alternatives both overseas and at home, taking advantage of MIT’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP). Drawn to fusion’s potential as an endless source of carbon-free energy on earth, she decided to try research at the PSFC, to see if the study was a good fit. 

    Much fusion research at MIT has favored heating hydrogen fuel inside a donut-shaped device called a tokamak, creating plasma that is hot and dense enough for fusion to occur. Because plasma will follow magnetic field lines, these devices are wrapped with magnets to keep the hot fuel from damaging the chamber walls.

    Fisher was assigned to SPARC, the PSFC’s new tokamak collaboration with MIT startup Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CSF), which uses a game-changing high-temperature superconducting (HTS) tape to create fusion magnets that minimize tokamak size and maximize performance. Working on a database reference book for SPARC materials, she was finding purpose even in the most repetitive tasks. “Which is how I knew I wanted to stay in fusion,” she laughs.

    Fisher’s latest UROP assignment takes her — literally — deeper into SPARC research. She works in a basement laboratory in building NW13 nicknamed “The Vault,” on a proton accelerator whose name conjures an underworld: DANTE. Supervised by PSFC Director Dennis Whyte and postdoc David Fischer, she is exploring the effects of radiation damage on the thin HTS tape that is key to SPARC’s design, and ultimately to the success of ARC, a prototype working fusion power plant.

    Because repetitive bombardment with neutrons produced during the fusion process can diminish the superconducting properties of the HTS, it is crucial to test the tape repeatedly. Fisher assists in assembling and testing the experimental setups for irradiating the HTS samples. Fisher recalls her first project was installing a “shutter” that would allow researchers to control exactly how much radiation reached the tape without having to turn off the entire experiment.

    “You could just push the button — block the radiation — then unblock it. It sounds super simple, but it took many trials. Because first I needed the right size solenoid, and then I couldn’t find a piece of metal that was small enough, and then we needed cryogenic glue…. To this day the actual final piece is made partially of paper towels.”

    She shrugs and laughs. “It worked, and it was the cheapest option.”

    Fisher is always ready to find the fun in fusion. Referring to DANTE as “A really cool dude,” she admits, “He’s perhaps a bit fickle. I may or may not have broken him once.” During a recent IAP seminar, she joined other PSFC UROP students to discuss her research, and expanded on how a mishap can become a gateway to understanding.

    “The grad student I work with and I got to repair almost the entire internal circuit when we blew the fuse — which originally was a really bad thing. But it ended up being great because we figured out exactly how it works.”

    Fisher’s upbeat spirit makes her ideal not only for the challenges of fusion research, but for serving the MIT community. As a student representative for NSE’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee, she meets monthly with the goal of growing and supporting diversity within the department.

    “This opportunity is impactful because I get my voice, and the voices of my peers, taken seriously,” she says. “Currently, we are spending most of our efforts trying to identify and eliminate hurdles based on race, ethnicity, gender, and income that prevent people from pursuing — and applying to — NSE.”

    To break from the lab and committees, she explores the Charles River as part of MIT’s varsity sailing team, refusing to miss a sunset. She also volunteers as an FPOP mentor, seeking to provide incoming first-years with the kind of experience that will make them want to return to the topic, as she did.

    She looks forward to continuing her studies on the HTS tapes she has been irradiating, proposing to send a current pulse above the critical current through the tape, to possibly anneal any defects from radiation, which would make repairs on future fusion power plants much easier.

    Fisher credits her current path to her UROP mentors and their infectious enthusiasm for the carbon-free potential of fusion energy.

    “UROPing around the PSFC showed me what I wanted to do with my life,” she says. “Who doesn’t want to save the world?” More

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    Tuning in to invisible waves on the JET tokamak

    Research scientist Alex Tinguely is readjusting to Cambridge and Boston.

    As a postdoc with the Plasma Science and Fusion Center (PSFC), the MIT graduate spent the last two years in Oxford, England, a city he recalls can be traversed entirely “in the time it takes to walk from MIT to Harvard.” With its ancient stone walls, cathedrals, cobblestone streets, and winding paths, that small city was his home base for a big project: JET, a tokamak that is currently the largest operating magnetic fusion energy experiment in the world.

    Located at the Culham Center for Fusion Energy (CCFE), part of the U.K. Atomic Energy Authority, this key research center of the European Fusion Program has recently announced historic success. Using a 50-50 deuterium-tritium fuel mixture for the first time since 1997, JET established a fusion power record of 10 megawatts output over five seconds. It produced 59 megajoules of fusion energy, more than doubling the 22 megajoule record it set in 1997. As a member of the JET Team, Tinguely has overseen the measurement and instrumentation systems (diagnostics) contributed by the MIT group.

    A lucky chance

    The postdoctoral opportunity arose just as Tinguely was graduating with a PhD in physics from MIT. Managed by Professor Miklos Porkolab as the principal investigator for over 20 years, this postdoctoral program has prepared multiple young researchers for careers in fusion facilities around the world. The collaborative research provided Tinguely the chance to work on a fusion device that would be adding tritium to the usual deuterium fuel.

    Fusion, the process that fuels the sun and other stars, could provide a long-term source of carbon-free power on Earth, if it can be harnessed. For decades researchers have tried to create an artificial star in a doughnut-shaped bottle, or “tokamak,” using magnetic fields to keep the turbulent plasma fuel confined and away from the walls of its container long enough for fusion to occur.

    In his graduate student days at MIT, Tinguely worked on the PSFC’s Alcator C-Mod tokamak, now decommissioned, which, like most magnetic fusion devices, used deuterium to create the plasmas for experiments. JET, since beginning operation in 1983, has done the same, later joining a small number of facilities that added tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen. While this addition increases the amount of fusion, it also creates much more radiation and activation.

    Tinguely considers himself fortunate to have been placed at JET.

    “There aren’t that many operating tokamaks in the U.S. right now,” says Tinguely, “not to mention one that would be running deuterium-tritium (DT), which hasn’t been run for over 20 years, and which would be making some really important measurements. I got a very lucky spot where I was an MIT postdoc, but I lived in Oxford, working on a very international project.”

    Strumming magnetic field lines

    The measurements that interest Tinguely are of low-frequency electromagnetic waves in tokamak plasmas. Tinguely uses an antenna diagnostic developed by MIT, EPFL Swiss Plasma Center, and CCFE to probe the so-called Alfvén eigenmodes when they are stable, before the energetic alpha particles produced by DT fusion plasmas can drive them toward instability.

    What makes MIT’s “Alfvén Eigenmode Active Diagnostic” essential is that without it researchers cannot see, or measure, stable eigenmodes. Unstable modes show up clearly as magnetic fluctuations in the data, but stable waves are invisible without prompting from the antenna. These measurements help researchers understand the physics of Alfvén waves and their potential for degrading fusion performance, providing insights that will be increasingly important for future DT fusion devices.

    Tinguely likens the diagnostic to fingers on guitar strings.

    “The magnetic field lines in the tokamak are like guitar strings. If you have nothing to give energy to the strings — or give energy to the waves of the magnetic field lines — they just sit there, they don’t do anything. The energetic plasma particles can essentially ‘play the guitar strings,’ strum the magnetic field lines of the plasma, and that’s when you can see the waves in your plasma. But if the energetic particle drive of the waves is not strong enough you won’t see them, so you need to come along and ‘pluck the strings’ with our antenna. And that’s how you learn some information about the waves.”

    Much of Tinguely’s experience on JET took place during the Covid-19 pandemic, when off-site operation and analysis were the norm. However, because the MIT diagnostic needed to be physically turned on and off, someone from Tinguely’s team needed to be on site twice a day, a routine that became even less convenient when tritium was introduced.

    “When you have deuterium and tritium, you produce a lot of neutrons. So, some of the buildings became off-limits during operation, which meant they had to be turned on really early in the morning, like 6:30 a.m., and then turned off very late at night, around 10:30 p.m.”

    Looking to the future

    Now a research scientist at the PSFC, Tinguely continues to work at JET remotely. He sometimes wishes he could again ride that train from Oxford to Culham — which he fondly remembers for its clean, comfortable efficiency — to see work colleagues and to visit local friends. The life he created for himself in England included practice and performance with the 125-year-old Oxford Bach Choir, as well as weekly dinner service at The Gatehouse, a facility that offers free support for the local homeless and low-income communities.

    “Being back is exciting too,” he says. “It’s fun to see how things have changed, how people and projects have grown, what new opportunities have arrived.”

    He refers specifically to a project that is beginning to take up more of his time: SPARC, the tokamak the PSFC supports in collaboration with Commonwealth Fusion Systems. Designed to use deuterium-tritium to make net fusion gains, SPARC will be able to use the latest research on JET to advantage. Tinguely is already exploring how his expertise with Alfvén eigenmodes can support the experiment.

    “I actually had an opportunity to do my PhD — or DPhil as they would call it — at Oxford University, but I went to MIT for grad school instead,” Tinguely reveals. “So, this is almost like closure, in a sense. I got to have my Oxford experience in the end, just in a different way, and have the MIT experience too.”

    He adds, “And I see myself being here at MIT for some time.” More