Brandon Sorbom has solved a fundamental problem that has made fusion reactors too expensive to build. By developing an electromagnetic system using high-temperature superconductors to insulate part of the fusion process, Sorbom’s breakthrough could make fusion reactor designs dramatically cheaper to build.
A fusion reactor that can deliver energy to the grid is more than a decade away at best. But developing such a reactor is a worthy goal because fusion has the potential to offer almost limitless zero-carbon energy, with low radioactive waste and safety risks.
One puzzle has stumped scientists for decades: how to maintain the 100 million-degree temperatures needed for fusion and do it cheaply enough to profitably produce energy. Powerful magnets can do the job by insulating the fuel at a reactor’s core. But until recently, not even the world’s best electromagnets were good enough.
So Sorbom and his team designed a better magnet from a superconductor called yttrium barium copper oxide. First as a student at MIT, and now as the chief scientist at startup Commonwealth Fusion Systems, Sorbom used this magnet as part of a fusion reactor design almost 100 times smaller than was previously thought possible. The reactor is so small, in fact, that Commonwealth Fusion is on track to build its first functional concept within the next decade.