A tokamak achieves fusion using magnets that whip hydrogen plasma (a charged gas) around a circular vessel, heating the gas to 100 to 300 million degrees.
Scientists can also trigger fusion by blasting fuel with lasers. In August, California scientists made a net energy gain by firing a building-sized laser at fusion fuel, producing 3.15 megajoules of energy from 2.05 megajoules.
“It’s not a spontaneous energy source, but an energy amplifier,” Burr said. “You put energy into it and then more energy is produced.”
The next step is to develop the hardware that can maintain consistent, safe and commercially viable fusion power that offsets the enormous amounts of energy used to fire a laser or launch a tokamak.
“It’s not about 105 percent more energy. It’s about achieving more like 500 to 1000 percent or more. We have to get there commercially.”
Enter Burr’s student. As part of the program, honors student Harvey Ling created a tokamak design for his senior thesis using a vacuum vessel made of stainless steel, electromagnets, copper cables and superconductors.
“It’s super surprising that there isn’t enough traction and interest in this area,” Ling said. “Many people don’t know what nuclear fusion is. They say, “Oh, I heard that’s just a myth.” But I think, no, I’m actually working on nuclear fusion. This is a unique opportunity to complete my studies with a bang.”
The Tokamak fits on a tabletop and is not used for fusion for now. But students will use the machine to conduct superheated plasma experiments to help industry partners accelerate fusion research, for example by studying how the machines handle plasma flares.
The program also aims to attract new talent to nuclear engineering.
“Graduates with knowledge of fusion energy will be the biggest obstacle to making fusion a reality,” Burr said. “We have investments, but we lack people.”
While experts say the technology won’t develop fast enough to help decarbonize energy grids and curb the climate crisis, fusion energy could determine how we power civilization in the second half of this century.
Most experts believe the technology will be commercially viable in 15 to 20 years, although scientists have been saying this since the 1950s. But with private investment topping $6 billion ($9.4 billion), the race to nuclear fusion is gathering pace.
“It’s just endless possibilities, right?” said Ling. “Students and technical staff need to be trained to be ready for this new nuclear society.”