Engineers at Commonwealth Fusion Systems, a spinoff from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, have predicted that using a new superconducting material will allow nuclear fusion power to be supplied to the grid within 15 years.

When hydrogen atoms are squeezed hard enough, they fuse to make helium, releasing vast amounts of energy in the process. However, this process produces net energy only at temperatures of hundreds of millions of degrees celsius. This is far too hot for any solid material to withstand, so  powerful magnetic fields are used to hold the hot plasma in place and stop it from coming into contact with any part of the fusion chamber.

A new superconducting material – a steel tape coated with a compound called yttrium-barium-copper oxide – allows scientists to produce magnetic fields four times stronger than any being used now. This means that smaller magnets, requiring less power, can be used.  This reduces the amount of energy that needs to be put in to control the fusion reaction and, so, means that the net energy output from the process is greater.

The research team aims to develop a 100 megawatt prototype reactor within the next 10 years, followed by a 200 megawatt pilot power plant. The scientists anticipate the output would be more than twice the power input to heat the plasma.

The project is expected to complement the research planned for a large international collaboration called ITER, currently under construction as the world’s largest fusion experiment at a site in southern France. If successful, ITER is expected to begin producing fusion energy around 2035.