By: Jeffrey Grossman & Elsa Olivetti

Back in the 1950’s, energy was promised to become “too cheap to meter,” thanks to the potential of nuclear fusion. The implication of this being, of course, that we would soon have access to an environmentally friendly source of energy that does not contribute to greenhouse gas emissions or global warming. That promise may be taking a bit longer than anticipated 70 years ago, but the recent breakthrough of a new magnet announced last month gets us a whole lot closer. In building and then demonstrating the most powerful superconducting magnet ever created (20 Tesla), an MIT team has overcome the single greatest bottleneck standing in the way of practical fusion energy, namely making a magnet both small and powerful enough to contain the massive energy released when two lighter atomic nuclei fuse to form a single heavier one. 

We’ll use this space to link impactful work in areas of climate and sustainability to the work of the MCSC. In this case, there are some clear connections that all of us in the MCSC likely find important, and many questions too; for example, around what’s next, and then scaling, timing, and economics of future fusion technology. But here we want to highlight a different point about this breakthrough that is also deeply related to the mission of MCSC: namely, the intersectionality of its ability to occur in the first place.

The essence of the breakthrough that is a 20-Tesla high temperature superconducting magnet lies in a combination of disciplines and discoveries. First, we have physics and the discovery of superconductivity back in 1911, where for the first time it was shown electrons can move in a material with zero resistance, albeit only at ultra-cold temperatures. Second, we have the field of atomic scale materials design, which led to the discovery of entirely new classes of materials (even ceramics!) that could not only exhibit superconductivity, but could do so at much higher temperatures. And third, we have the combination of advanced manufacturing and systems design, which allowed the team to build a high temperature superconductor using these new materials at a previously unimaginable scale. This underscores what we have been emphasizing in our own conversations: to make changes that are meaningful, scalable, and long-lasting, the voices in the room cannot be from one background. The power lies in the interdisciplinarity.

And while combining domains of knowledge allowed for this necessary breakthrough to occur in the context of fusion energy – and a coming together that we hope enables breakthroughs both large and small for the MCSC – there is a second example in this story related to the power of intersections, one that lies in the team’s approach itself. Martin Greenwald, deputy director and senior research scientist at the MIT Plasma Science and Fusion Center, sums it up nicely in recent news piece, “(we) 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.” The big advance then, has arisen not just by overcoming a key technical hurdle, but also by defining which technical hurdle to work on in the first place. This approach maximizes the leverage of all relevant past and present work while identifying the right problem to work on that could change the game. As we have emphasized recently, emerging from our June workshops and spending the ample time required to identify the programs to dive into, there can be no solution until we have recognized the challenges effectively and collectively.

If you’re interested in learning more about any aspects of this breakthrough, we’d be happy to connect you to folks working on it within the MIT community.