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Fusion Power Generation May Come Sooner Than You Think
Public-private partnerships are investing in a clean energy future
Fusion power is a mainstay of futurists and science fiction, often dismissed with an eyeroll as “the power of the future—and it always will be.” Achieving a fusion reaction, let alone generating electricity from the process, has challenged builders of some of the most monumental government-backed machines devised, such as laser arrays and magnetic plasma chambers. But a host of private companies around the world, some emerging from national laboratories, is attracting billions of dollars in venture capital to pursue practical, commercially viable fusion power designs.
In early December, Commonwealth Fusion Systems, a spinoff from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, announced it had secured $1.8 billion in a new round of funding from investors, including Equinor Ventures and Tiger Global Management, to develop its fusion reactor technology. A little farther north, Canada-based General Fusion said it had just received $130 million from a group of investors, led by Temasek, for its own approach to liberating energy from hydrogen.
With government labs such as Lawrence Livermore’s National Ignition Facility (NIF) on the threshold of successful fusion ignition (i.e., getting out more energy than has been put in) and a host of private companies pursuing a variety of approaches to the problem, the power of the future may finally be near. Or it may not be, because the technical obstacles to building and deploying functional designs on the grid remain daunting.
Regardless of the difficulties, however, the mere possibility of a comparatively clean energy source with an essentially inexhaustible fuel supply should generate universal, if cautious, optimism. But critics fear the still-distant technology could distract policymakers and divert investment from renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar. More cynical observers, such as Robert Zubrin, writing in the National Review, contend that environmentalists fear fusion power precisely because it might successfully outshine their “Malthusian belief system” that requires mankind’s diminishment. “We are not threatened by there being too many people,” Zubrin writes. “We are threatened by people who think there are too many people. Fusion power can save us by utterly refuting the limited-resource thesis.”
Sun in a Bottle
Fusion-power developers and enthusiasts are fond of pointing out that the energy source is similar to that which ignites the sun. At its most basic, two atomic nuclei fuse together, releasing energy. The process requires some combination of high temperatures and high pressures, such as what exists in the core of stars. Developers of fusion power reactors seek to enable this process in a contained and controlled way.
The problem of turning fusion into a practical, commercial source of energy involves three main challenges. The first is to create fusion ignition to begin with. The second is to contain and sustain this reaction. The third is to convert the liberated energy into a form that can be transmitted to the electric grid.
It’s easy to be skeptical about fusion power. Again, the trick is to get more power out than you expend. Making fusion happen is relatively straightforward. Put enough energy into the system (along with pressure) and you will get fusion. However, only recently have massive laboratories even claimed to approach the break-even point, let alone exceed it. The NIF unofficially is reported to have crossed the threshold, but don’t get too excited. Even if the approach succeeds, it is not deemed a useful template for commercial reactors.
Facilities like the NIF were conceived not as methods to generate electricity but as means of recreating the conditions of thermonuclear explosions to verify the designs of weapons without resorting to atmospheric or underground testing. The goal is to create the fusion reaction, not to harness it to power your Tesla. If the scientific models are good enough, you can test weapon designs under various conditions. Nevertheless, demonstrating that it is possible to get more energy out of a process than was expended does indeed have ramifications for the commercial power generation sector, albeit conceptually.
There is a distinction between fusion bombs and fusion reactors. With the former, the goal is to create as much unconstrained energy as possible, as quickly as possible, using uranium- or plutonium-fueled nuclear fission to achieve ignition, radioactivity be damned. Just as nuclear fission power has been unjustly tarred with the nuclear bomb brush, so fusion power has been at least dusted with the same misinformation in popular culture. Researchers and developers are quick to point out that fusion processes do not create long-lasting nuclear waste, although some components can become radioactive for relatively short periods of time. Furthermore, most fusion processes use abundantly available fuel and do not produce emissions. For all intents and purposes, fusion power would be clean energy.
Achieving the fusion process itself has required government institutions with tremendous funding, such as NIF. Lawrence Livermore’s facility uses the inertial confinement method, wherein a globular array of lasers bombards a deuterium pellet in a central target capsule to initiate a fusion reaction. The University of Rochester’s Laboratory for Laser Energetics follows the same model, which requires laser amplification structures the size of a football field. A different type of inertial confinement called a Z-pinch uses the electromagnetic fields generated by plasma streams to attract one another to form a denser plasma and so achieve fusion. Sandia National Lab’s Z machine experimental facility follows this concept.
The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), under construction in France and backed by a 36-nation consortium led by the European Union, will pursue a different approach that is considered more likely to result in commercially viable power generation technology. The ITER employs a magnetic confinement method called a tokamak, a Russian term, that uses magnet coils to create and sustain the conditions for fusion.
The ITER is a consolidation of dozens of national tokamak-based projects, notably the Joint European Torus (its tokamak makes a torus-shaped magnetic field to contain the fusion plasma). Fusion is achieved by compressing the plasma with huge magnets. If all goes well, the ITER is expected to fire up in 2035. But while the tokamak method is regarded as more commercially promising than inertial confinement approaches, it has not achieved the same raw output.
ITER partner China has maintained its own national tokamak-based research facility, the Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak, since 2007. In May, the Chinese Academy of Sciences announced that its facility, also designated HT-7U, achieved breakthroughs in temperature and duration of a fusion reaction, although still far short of practical requirements.
Even with fusion ignition, regardless of the method, that energy still needs to be turned into electricity. One way is to use the plasma as a source for transferring the heat to a medium such as oil or salt. The heat can then be turned into steam to drive a turbine. Now we’re in familiar territory and on the grid. There are also alternative technologies that produce voltage through direct conversion of the emanated particles.
Searching for SpaceX
If you’re waiting for fusion power to come from governmental efforts, be prepared to keep waiting. While Lawrence Livermore’s facility is making strides and the ITER project is gathering together teams from around the world, the real reason for hope on the fusion front is coming from the private sector. Much as the space launch industry has been invigorated by innovative companies such as SpaceX, Blue Origin and Rocket Lab that challenge an ossified government-directed order, so a new generation of entrepreneurs is pushing new boundaries of commercial fusion research.
Like the new generation of space launch companies, many of the private developers of commercial fusion power owe their existence to taxpayer-funded backing and work spinning out of universities, many of which have ties to national laboratories. Fusion power technology companies are also attracting funding from deep-pocketed investors and venture capital firms.
The following list of companies, while not exhaustive, illustrates the myriad approaches to achieving fusion power under development in the private sector:
Commonwealth Fusion Systems of Cambridge, Massachusetts, is working with MIT on its SPARC fusion demonstration reactor designed on the tokamak concept. The team’s approach is to use a new high-temperature superconducting magnet to contain and sustain the fusion process, enabling smaller and more practical commercial power plants.
Tokamak Energy of the U.K. is, not surprisingly, pursuing magnetic plasma containment. The company is also using high-temperature superconducting magnets with the goal of producing a spherical plasma field, which its research suggests is more efficient than torus-shaped tokamaks.
CTFusion has partnered with the University of Washington to develop a reactor design that produces fusion from deuterium and tritium fuel through a containment produced from coiled magnets. Plasma is injected continuously into the reactor, where the coils induce it to form a shape that can achieve fusion. The company says the design will enable smaller fusion reactors.
Helion Energy of Everett, Washington, is developing a fusion process from a fuel of deuterium and helium-3, a rare isotope of helium that the company produces through a patented process. Helion’s reactor design has two chambers in a dumbbell configuration, in which fuel is heated to plasma and then accelerated into a central chamber where the collision results in fusion. In November the company announced it had received $500 million in funding from a group of investors led by OpenAI, with $1.7 billion in additional funding promised if certain milestones are met.
California-based TAE Technologies has a reactor design that also generates fusion from plasmas created from wing chambers that are propelled to collide in a central chamber. The design uses boron for fuel and employs particle accelerators to stabilize and prolong the fusion reaction. The company says it has raised over $880 million from an array of investors.
General Fusion seeks to eliminate magnets from the fusion process with a reactor design that injects deuterium-tritium-fueled plasma into a spherical chamber lined with a rotating wall of liquid metal. Steam-driven pistons compress the tokamak to achieve fusion. Heat is collected from the liquid wall to run turbines. Jeff Bezos is among the company’s investors.
HyperJet Fusion of Chantilly, Virginia, is developing a reactor that creates fusion in a central chamber from an array of plasma guns fueled by tritium and lithium. The company was born from research sponsored by NASA, the U.S. Department of Energy and the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy.
Zap Energy of Seattle, Washington, is seeking to develop a fusion reactor using a variation of the Z-pinch process that uses electric current to confine and manage streams of plasma. The process was born out of Department of Energy-funded research from the University of Washington and Lawrence Livermore. In August 2020, Chevron announced it was investing in the company.
LLPFusion of Middlesex, New Jersey, is also following the Z-pinch path to develop a fusion generator. The company’s design directs plasma streams fueled by hydrogen and boron into a vacuum chamber by means of a pair of electrodes. The process produces a beam of helium ions that are decelerated to produce electricity through direct conversion rather than by heating a medium.
Australia-based HB11 Energy proposes achieving fusion without heating plasma by using a laser to initiate a reaction in a hydrogen-boron fuel target that is contained in a magnetic field produced by a second laser. The reaction creates charged helium nuclei that are captured by a surrounding metal sphere. Electricity is produced by direct conversion.
Essentially all these companies say they are on track to produce practical fusion first with their unique approach. Moreover, national labs and research facilities in the fusion field increasingly are willing to partner with private industry or launch startups to commercialize fusion energy. While it is impossible to predict which firm or team (if any) will be the breakout performer, the fact that many are attracting significant venture capital suggests that fusion power can no longer be dismissed as part of a far-future civilization.
Pick Your Future
One only has to look at the trajectory of the nuclear power industry to glean what might be in store for commercial fusion plant operators. Fission-based plants generate long-lasting radioactive waste, and several spectacular accidents resulted in casualties, although only Chernobyl in 1986 can properly be deemed a mass-casualty event. But overwhelmingly, nuclear power has provided reliable and safe electricity for over half a century, and methods for handling and storing radioactive waste are well established. Yet progressive governments, such as those in Germany, California and New York, fall over themselves to shutter their nuclear plants, generally to their later chagrin.
Most of the opposition to fusion development from environmental organizations such as Greenpeace and from Green politicians revolves around the notion that commercial fusion reactors are a mirage. Greenpeace energy policy specialist Jan Haverkamp reportedly said, “My professor of nuclear physics told me in 1979 that fusion power was 50 years away. It is still 50 years away today.”
As a result, they argue, governments and investors should not be putting their money behind “Big Power” fusion schemes that will not do anything to solve a perceived climate crisis in the near term. Better to keep pushing for more wind and solar. While these renewable energy sources, particularly the latter, appeal to environmentalists at a gut level, their enthusiasm ignores the demonstrable problems of deploying them without a sturdy baseline of generating capacity. Renewables certainly have their role, but their intermittent nature leaves people in the lurch when the wind doesn’t blow or the sun doesn’t shine.
Much of the recent opposition to fusion from activists focuses on the large-scale ITER project, which is not even scheduled for initial operation for another 15 years or so. However, the growing ranks of public-private partnerships that are exploring different pathways to achieve practical commercial fusion do not really take anything away from developers of renewable energy. The potential for actually deploying a technology that could produce abundant clean energy from limitless fuel will continue to attract investment dollars.
It is also worth noting that a few companies are working on developing fusion power as a means of propelling space vessels. California-based Helicity Space is working on fusion rocket engines that it says could get a spacecraft to Mars in two months. Lockheed Martin is working on a compact fusion concept that could be used for small-scale power generation, ship propulsion and spacecraft flights. I, for one, am hoping for this kind of future.