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SPARC fusion experiment
An artist’s conception shows the proposed SPARC tokamak experiment. Using high-field magnets built with high-temperature superconductors, this experiment could be the first controlled fusion plasma to produce net energy output. (MIT PSFC Illustration / Ken Filar)

A new entrant in the race to commercialize fusion energy, Commonwealth Fusion Systems, aims to capitalize on superconductor technology from MIT and $50 million from the Italian energy company Eni.

The collaboration between the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Commonwealth Fusion, an MIT spinout based in Cambridge, Mass., came to light today after years of work behind the scenes.

“This is an important historical moment: Advances in superconducting magnets have put fusion energy potentially within reach, offering the prospect of a safe, carbon-free energy future,” MIT President L. Rafael Reif said in a news release.

Commonwealth Fusion CEO Robert Mumgaard said his company plans to crack the controlled-fusion puzzle “by leveraging the science that’s already developed, collaborating with the right partners and tackling the problems step by step.”

The venture’s stated goal is to demonstrate the viability of commercial fusion power plants within 15 years.

Hundreds of millions of dollars have already been raised by other commercial fusion ventures, including California-based TAE Technologies, Kirkland, Wash.-based Helion Energy and Vancouver, B.C.-based General Fusion. Each of those three companies have billionaire investors — Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, respectively.

There’s also an multibillion-dollar fusion research effort known as ITER, which is building an experimental reactor in France with support from 35 nations, including the United States.

The researchers behind those efforts have suggested they could see net energy gain from a controlled fusion reaction within 10 to 15 years. However, the field of fusion research is littered with failed predictions.

Read more: Commercial fusion ventures learn lessons about engineering and expectations

Nuclear fusion is the reaction that powers the sun and other stars, principally by fusing hydrogen atoms into helium under extreme temperature and pressure. A small amount of mass is converted directly into energy in the process, in accordance with Albert Einstein’s famous E=mc2 equation.

Achieving sustainable fusion in commercial reactors could open up an era of relatively cheap, relatively clean, limitless power.

Commonwealth is counting on recent advances in high-temperature superconductors to give its approach an edge. It plans to use a compound called yttrium-barium-copper oxide, or YBCO, in containment magnets that should open the way for more efficient, smaller-scale, lower-cost fusion reactors.

Over the next three years, Commonwealth plans to devote $30 million to supporting MIT research into the development of YBCO-based magnets for an experimental reactor known as SPARC. The reactor would make use of the tried-and-true, doughnut-shaped tokamak design for its plasma chamber.

“By putting the magnet development up front, we think that this gives you a really solid answer in three years,” said Dennis Whyte, director of MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center, “and gives you a great amount of confidence moving forward that you’re giving yourself the best possible chance of answering the key question, which is: Can you make net energy from a magnetically confined plasma?”

If the experiment proceeds as expected, SPARC should produce about 100 megawatts of pulsed power in the form of heat, demonstrating net energy gain. The insights gained from SPARC would be applied to the construction of a tokamak reactor that’s about twice as big and capable of generating 200 megawatts of electricity.

“Our strategy is to use conservative physics, based on decades of work at MIT and elsewhere,” said Martin Greenwald, the Plasma Science and Fusion Center’s deputy director. “If SPARC does achieve its expected performance, my sense is that’s sort of a Kitty Hawk moment for fusion.”

In addition to its $50 million investment in Commonwealth Fusion, Eni announced an agreement with the MIT Energy Initiative to fund research projects run out of the Plasma Science and Fusion Center’s Laboratory for Innovation in Fusion Technologies. That funding is expected to amount to $2 million.

In a statement, Eni CEO Claudio Descalzi said his company’s investment marked a “significant step toward the development of alternative energy sources with an ever-lower environmental impact.”

“It is a goal that we are increasingly determined to reach quickly,” he said.

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