Imagine a world without man-made climate change, energy crunches, or reliance on foreign oil. It may sound like a dream world, but University of Tennessee-Knoxville engineers have made a giant step toward making this scenario a reality.

UT researchers have successfully developed a key technology in developing an experimental reactor that can demonstrate the feasibility of fusion energy for the power grid. Nuclear fusion promises to supply more energy than the nuclear fission used today but with far fewer risks.

Mechanical, aerospace, and biomedical engineering professors David Irick, Madhu Madhukar, and Masood Parang are engaged in a project involving the United States, five other nations, and the European Union, known as ITER. UT researchers completed a critical step this week for the project by successfully testing their technology this week that will insulate and stabilize the central solenoid—the reactor's backbone.

ITER is building a fusion reactor that aims to produce ten times the amount of energy that it uses. The facility is now under construction near Cadarache, France, and will begin operations in 2020.

"The goal of ITER is to help bring fusion power to the commercial market," Madhukar said. "Fusion power is safer and more efficient than nuclear fission power. There is no danger of runaway reactions like what happened in nuclear fission reactions in Japan and Chernobyl, and there is little radioactive waste."

Unlike today's nuclear fission reactors, fusion uses a similar process as that which powers the sun.

Since 2008, UT engineering professors and about fifteen students have worked inside UT's Magnet Development Laboratory (MDL) located off of Pellissippi Parkway to develop technology that serves to insulate and provide structural integrity to the more than 1,000 ton central solenoid.

Researchers and staff at UT's Magnet Development Laboratory prepare the central solenoid mockup for the vacuum pressure impregnation process.