Whyte is the Hitachi America Prof. of Engineering at MIT, Director of the MIT Plasma Science & Fusion Center, and a prof. in the MIT Dept. of Nuclear Science & Engineering. His research focuses on accelerating the development of magnetic fusion energy systems. He leads the SPARC project to demonstrate net fusion plasma energy gain and the Lab. for Innovations in Fusion Technology. He earned his B. Eng. from the University of Saskatchewan and a PhD from the Université du Québec. He served as Dept. Head of MIT Nuclear Science & Engineering from 2015-2019 and has been a committee member on three NAS studies. He has published over 350 papers and has won numerous awards, including the IAEA Nuclear Fusion Prize (2013) and the Fusion Power Associates Leadership Award (2018).
Clean energy startups are growing in popularity due to the awareness of climate change and energy security concerns. Transcript: "Yeah, a great question. It is a very big leap. This is including both fission and fusion energy startups. I mean, I think the reason for this is that the reality of climate change and how difficult decarbonization will be-- and this includes all decarbonization, not just of the electrical grid-- is dawning on people. There's a variety-- a large swath of industries now promising that they're going to decarbonize, but they actually don't have the technologies with which to do it or scale for their particular application. And more recently, of course, the whole aspect of energy security, when this happened, and the questions surrounding it because of the invasion of Ukraine and the dependencies of different places geopolitically, our energy sources has really brought this to bear. So it's a really unique time, I think, in clean energy startups because of that."
Teaching has been an important part of my research, since it helps me to explain and simplify concepts. It has also allowed me to harness the creativity of young people in a team setting, which has led to many innovations. Transcript: "Teaching has been an extraordinarily important part of my research. I actually kind of surprised myself by becoming a professor. I loved research so much and then the opportunity came along to to become a professor. And what I've found fairly quickly was that the kinds of questions that were being asked of Me by the students revealed. You know, incompleteness in my understanding or perhaps I understood it in my own head but I wasn't in have a good way to explain it. So for me, the process of explaining and simplifying, these Concepts became really important aspects of my research often. As I found myself fight figure out a way to simplify the explanation. I would come upon like sort of an observation. I said, oh, why why didn't I make this connection before with this or that discipline? So that's been a really important part of the creativity, in my research. And then the other part is just like what particularly when you're doing. When you're, when you have graduate students, is that in something like a design class, which was the place that was their origin. In fact of our of our of our spin-out companies is that, you know, the seeing the harnessing, the creativity of young people, in a team setting itself became a launching point, and And in incubator for a whole host of Innovations, which I don't think would have happened without me teaching in the classroom. So for me, I became a much more complete and better researcher by teaching in the classroom."
Cold plasma is a phase of matter that occurs when gases are heated above 5,000 degrees. Cold plasmas have many uses such as etching computer chips and medical applications. They can also be used in plasma TVs. Transcript: "So cold plasma. So, first of all, what is it is a good question. So, the plasma State, this takes a little bit of description of what is the plasma, so, a plasma occurs when you heat things up to particular temperature, so, I mean, the so it's actually a phase of matter. So we're familiar with you, take ice and the solid phase and heated up. It turns into a liquid water intake, water heat, it up some more turns into a gas called Steam and then we're familiar with Of these three phases of matter, gasps, right? There's actually a fourth piece of matter. It's called plasmas. And when does this occur while you take gases, like steam or any kind of regular, are you heat? It passed around 5,000 degrees and it turns into the plasma State. It's actually different phase of matter. The reason for this is because it gets hot enough that basically some enough of the particles start putting the atoms inside of a sir pulling apart. They start, they start having a charge because the electrons are attached to the atoms, get pulled away. Away, and you're left with negative and positive charged particles. And because these particles now interact through their electric fields of the charges that they have, it starts to behave in fundamentally different way. These are plasmas. So what we call a cold plasma? Well, actually Cole plasmas for us though. So we use hot plasmas and fusion because we need to get to temperatures over 15 million degrees, cold plasmas are ones, which are around five, you know, to 10,000 degrees somewhere in that range typically. But these actually have a lot of uses a little bit harder than that and they have a lot of uses because this phase of matter plasma, particularly the particles have charge can be controlled and manipulated and then exploited in ways, which is not possible for regular gases. So a very large example of that is actually the use of plasmas to actual computer chips or silicon chips, and this is because the highwomen Hi average energy of the particles in this. And then the new manipulation with other kinds of electric Fields, allows these charged particles to basically bombard a surface, this removes atoms. And then this way, you can etch a pattern. So, that's, that's one fundamental way. Another one in which is an interesting one, and a growing area of interest is to use plasmas in medical applications because the plasma is, in some sense, a ultimate disinfectant, because it actually a demises things that are on the surface of the skin. Your wounds and things like that. So that's an interesting aspect of that. So there are many uses for coal plasmas. I've just named a few of them. And in fact, they are actually well, that wasn't looking at my TV. So you plasma TVs. Those are in fact, Cole plasmas as well too. So there's many uses for plasmas that are quote, unquote cold, which means they're only above 5,000 degrees."
Uranium is mined from a few locations around the world, such as in provinces in Canada, and it is used in fusion power plants. Plutonium is not mined, but rather only made inside fission power plants from uranium. Transcript: "Mmm, right so. So for Uranium, yes, so, uranium is mined as an or like any other Wars. And, in fact, they're found in concentrations that very around. There's a few locations. In fact, it might need of provinces in Saskatchewan in Canada and Northern Saskatchewan. There's a very large concentration of uranium and there are other places around the world that actually have these. So, These locations are important because the uranium is mined and then process to be able to use in fusion. Power plants, plutonium is not because plutonium does not occur. A naturally plutonium is only made inside a fission power plants. In fact, so yes, so you don't mind plutonium. You actually make it from the that actually occurs from the fission of uranium"
Nuclear energy, as we understand it today, is generated through the process of fission. Fusion energy is similar in that it also involves the rearrangement of nuclei to release large amounts of energy, but it uses the opposite process. Transcript: "This is a good question. It is confusing. So let me explain it from a practical point of view. And then from the science point of view. So from the Practical point of view, what's called nuclear energy. Right now, it works exclusively with the fission process and vision requires the splitting up of the most unstable atoms or nuclei like uranium. And when that splitting occurs because of basic nuclear science. This means that the it releases large amounts of energy, so that's what we have. So, The fusion energy is has a link to this because underneath it is that it's the same nuclear science. That tells you that when you fuse very light elements together, namely bring them together that will also release large amounts of energy is this has to do with the details of nuclear stability and the and the forces that hold together nuclei. So there's a link there so that Fusion as a fundamental Total underlying principle uses the rearrangement of nuclei to re staggering amounts of energy. Yet. It is not nuclear energy as we presently call it because it literally uses the opposite but process."
Fusion is closer than ever before, with the development of a device called SPARK, which can make more energy than it requires to keep it hot. With further developments in fusion power plants, it is hoped that they will be available within the next decade or so. Transcript: "The classic question. How soon is Fusion, right? And we have the old joke, you know, Fusion is 30 years away and it will always be 30 years away. Well, you know, the fact is the science of fusion has been largely established in Laboratories around the world including the one here at MIT. The thing that sounds like science fiction of making 100 million degrees, fuel has been established in the laboratory. I mean, no, these Amino, these conditions. So what we have in front of us and right now, what we're working on with our Orders that come with Fusion systems. You can look it up on the internet that we have a device called spark which will be an important first step in demonstrating. The viability of fusion is an energy source, because for the first time this fuel, the plasma will make more Fusion energy than the heat that's required of the to apply to it to keep it hot. Very exciting. Now, fusion power plants are a different thing because now you have to add in all the components that actually extract the energy and supply energy to the Grid or other energy. Energy applications of what you might see. So the exciting thing is that, in our own effort where we've significantly, decrease the size of the fusion devices. We believe this really pulls commercialization and fusion power plants much closer, but there are other configurations that are being worked on as well too. And they're sort of a race a good race, which is going on about developing these different energy sources. There's actually a great National academies report. There was recently released Google called bringing u.s. Bringing fusion power to the US. Us grid. That would be a good read if you're interested in diving into more detail, but then this all means we're hope that we could actually get this, you know, and not too much longer than a decade to have fusion power plants."