MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center (PSFC) has been in the news of late as federal funding was restored for the national project the center leads and the project reopened last month after a yearlong shutdown. But what is that project, and why is it important?

Introducing the Alcator C-Mod tokamak, one of the nation’s few major research facilities for reproducing the process that powers the sun. The stakes are high: that process, nuclear fusion, could lead to a new source of clean energy for the world.

In nuclear fusion, light elements are fused together at enormous temperatures to make heavier elements, a process that releases large amounts of energy. For more than 50 years, scientists have been studying how to efficiently harness this process on Earth, because among other advantages, the resulting energy would be clean, with no carbon dioxide emissions. In addition, there is an inexhaustible supply of the fuel itself (heavy forms of hydrogen).

Alcator C-Mod confines the electrically charged gas, or plasma, where fusion occurs. Scientists from around the country can sign up to run experiments on the reactor, which can even be operated remotely. You can take a virtual tour of the reactor from the PSFC’s home page.

Maria Zuber, MIT’s vice president for research, recently described the research underway at Alcator and the PSFC as “at the top of its game, world-class and highly cited,” noting that a team from the Alcator group won the 2013 annual prize from the journal Nuclear Fusion for the top article in fusion research.

Read news reports from the Boston Globe and WBUR on the cuts and restoration of PSFC’s funding.

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