Caroline Anderson, Manager for Outreach at the Fusion Industry Association, details the latest breakthroughs in fusion energy and what this means for its future
In December 2022, net fusion power was achieved for the first time ever on Earth. But, when will fusion be achieved at a scale that counters the climate and energy crises? What will it take to commercialise fusion?
The fusion energy breakthrough at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) in the US attracted global attention to fusion. SNL chimed in. Bill Nye spoke on CNN. 60 Minutes ran a feature on it.
Fusion broke into conversations everywhere and continues to emerge at the forefront of policy and climate discussions worldwide. But the question remains, when will this energy source scale up to a level that can counter the climate and energy crises?
What is fusion energy?
Fusion is a virtually limitless source of energy, as it uses the same process that powers the Sun and stars. Due to its efficiency, safety, and zero-carbon emissions, fusion is ‘the holy grail of energy’. Although also a form of nuclear energy, it can be understood as the exact opposite of nuclear fission. Fission – the most commonly known form of nuclear energy – generates energy by splitting atoms together. Fusion fuses atoms together and, in the process, releases huge amounts of energy. It is hard to do and only happens in extreme conditions (like the Sun). On Earth, scientists have been able to generate fusion for years, but were only recently able to achieve more energy outputted than what it took to create it. This is a tremendous achievement, but many steps remain to commercialise fusion and reap the numerous, massive benefits.
Where are we now? Status of the private fusion industry
The private fusion industry is spearheading efforts towards commercialisation. Growth in the last year was significant, with at least eight new companies emerging. This puts industry size at over 30 fusion firms worldwide, with a global supply chain. Private funding in fusion firms increased by more than double in a single year, now standing at over $5bn. Investment by the likes of Google, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Shell, and others continues to grow.
Not only has there been an immense increase in industry size, there has been a quick growth in firms’ confidence in commercialisation timelines. According to the Fusion Industry Association’s ‘The Global Fusion Industry in 2022’ report, 93% of fusion firms worldwide are confident that fusion will be on the grid in the 2030s or before. This is up from the 83% of firms that believed this in the 2021 edition of the report – a quick and notable jump due to rapid investment and scientific and technology breakthroughs.
Fusion engineering and technology breakthroughs in the private sector became almost commonplace in the last 18 months. Commonwealth Fusion Systems created the strongest – 20 tesla – magnet ever in September 2021, overcoming one of the greatest technological hurdles on the way to fusion. Helion Energy was the first private company to pass 100 million degrees Celsius in June 2021, a major milestone. Plasma creation and confinement records are also key for the majority of fusion technologies, as it is most often the matter in which fusion is generated. UK-based firm Tokamak Energy achieved a plasma temperature of 100 million degrees Celsius, a world record for a spherical tokamak, in March 2022. TAE Technologies achieved temperatures over 75 million degrees Celsius – surpassing their goal by 250% – and demonstrated plasma control, leading to securing investments for funding their next research device in July 2022. In January 2022, General Fusion achieved Magnetized Target Fusion (MTF) performance goals with its prototype device informing a demonstration plant. Zap Energy achieved first plasma in its new device in June 2022. HB11 Energy achieved a number of non-thermal fusion reactions of hydrogen and boron-11 using high-power lasers, a world first, in March 2022. First Light Fusion proved its new method for inertial fusion using a high velocity gas gun in April 2022. The list goes on, as no two companies use the exact same methods.
What’s next on the road to commercialisation?
Decades of research formed the scientific and technological bases and breakthroughs that proved the viability of achieving fusion energy at scale. Now, firms are building scientific proof-of-concept fusion devices and siting demonstration plants to inform future commercial fusion power plants.
Two firms – General Fusion and First Light Fusion – plan to build demonstration plants at the UK Atomic Energy Authority’s Culham Center in Oxfordshire. General Fusion received its building permit earlier this month and plans to start construction this summer. Last week, First Light Fusion announced its intention to build at the site. Others are also well on their way to commercialisation. Construction on SPARC, Commonwealth Fusion Systems’ demonstration plant is well underway and will inform ARC, its future power plant. TAE Technologies is building its proof-of-concept devices and expects its latest to lead to a commercial plant in the 2030s. Helion expects its planned prototype machine to demonstrate net electricity by 2024, and will then advance to commercialisation. Zap Energy is already experimenting on the FUZE-Q device that it plans to demonstrate fusion breakeven, and is looking into the viability of turning Washington State’s last coal plant into a site for a fusion power plant.
Looking ahead to the late 2020s, the private industry targets a continuation of pilot plant design and construction. Plant operation and first sales are expected in the 2030s. Once successful, firms target the mid-late 2030s as the era of the beginning of commercial fusion and then scaling up to global deployment. The fusion industry’s timeline is ambitious, in part due to investment growth and technology breakthroughs, but also because it has to be.
Why does the world need fusion?
With over eight billion people on Earth, current energy systems are not sustainable. Over one billion people do not have access to electricity. Hundreds of millions more do not have access to reliable power. The economic disparity between countries with stable power versus countries without is staggering.
The effects of our current energy systems have proved to be disastrous – not only for development ability, but for climate and geopolitical stability. Conflict and environmental disasters have surged in recent years. This past year, the Russian invasion of Ukraine was a reminder of the disastrous effects of countries wielding their power – literally – over others in less advantageous locations, with less advantageous power sources.
The worsening climate crisis and international instability urge a globally deployable energy that is clean, safe, and cheap. Fusion energy at scale checks all the boxes.
It is hard to overemphasise the payoff of global fusion commercialisation.
It equates to environmentally safe energy manufactured practically anywhere in the world. With zero-carbon emissions and virtually unlimited fuel, fusion at scale is cheap, highly efficient, and exportable. Imagine the possibilities with clean, global power reliability… development, innovation, greater global equality, accessibility, more stabilised geopolitics, industry formation, a cleaner world, and a healing atmosphere.
Fusion energy has the potential to be the global equaliser. It would increase grid reliability and global access to clean, stable electricity, bettering virtually all aspects of life. Governments around the world agree.
The need for fusion advancement is emerging at the forefront of international and national climate goal conversations. Following the 2015 Paris Agreement’s target of net-zero emissions by 2050, governments and entities worldwide have included fusion energy in their roadmaps. In the US, the White House put out its “five priorities towards achieving net-zero by 2050”, including Fusion Energy At Scale. The UK included fusion energy in the Prime Minister’s 10 Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution to net zero. Less than a year later, it set out a strategy to accelerate fusion commercialisation efforts. Most recently, the former UK Energy Minister, Chris Skidmore, published his Net Zero Review, highlighting fusion as an opportunity. Global management consulting firm McKinsey & Company outlined fusion as a potential source to achieve net-zero targets: “Our analysis suggests that [fusion] could potentially play a large role in meeting 2050 decarbonisation targets and may be worth considering in policies, plans, and investments.” Fusion was featured at the United Nations Climate Change Conference for the second year in a row in 2022 at COP27 in Egypt.
Not only have major governments and entities included fusion energy acceleration in their shortlists of steps to achieve climate goals, but they are taking more direct action.
In the US, the White House held a Summit on ‘Developing a Bold Decadal Vision for Fusion Energy’ in March 2022. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) announced funding for a new fusion milestone-based public-private partnership programme at the international Global Clean Energy Action Forum in September. The DOE also funds a smaller public-private partnership programme (INFUSE), working to synchronise the research at national laboratories and universities with the ambitions of the private sector. The programme announced $2.3m for its most recent awards last week. Congress announced record fusion R&D spending in the US federal budget for FY2023 – for the fourth year in a row. In September, the Senate held a hearing on fusion energy and the role of the federal government in accelerating commercialisation. Members of Congress continue to urge higher amounts of funding, as well as advocate for a solidified, risk-informed, fusion-specific regulatory framework.
In the UK, the government – in addition to the emerging private sector – drives fusion growth. There are government-funded programmes geared towards developing an operational fusion pilot plant (STEP), a fusion government cluster, and research centres dedicated to tackling fusion’s greatest hurdles.
Taking fusion acceleration further than perhaps any other country, the UK has already secured fusion regulations within the Environment Agency (EA) and Health & Safety Executive (HSE), maintaining the necessary, and advantageous, separation of fusion regulations from fission. A good role model for other countries as the two have vastly different safety implications. There is no risk of radioactive meltdowns with fusion. Unlike fission, when a fusion device is turned off, energy generation immediately stops.
Fusion energy regulations in the US have yet to be solidified. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) staff published an Options paper in January 2023, discussing fusion’s safety and outlining potential fusion regulatory approaches for the Commissioners to vote on in upcoming months. Ensuring a risk-informed, fusion-specific regulatory framework is critical to ensuring fusion commercialisation on a meaningful timeline. Other countries are expected to follow suit in coming years.
Although a bulk of public fusion activity is taking place in the US and UK, the fusion development effort is worldwide. China has been working towards fusion commercialisation, with aims to complete the compact fusion tokamak BEST in 2027, and CFETR by 2035. Already home to three fusion start-ups, Japan has announced that the government will formalise a fusion strategy this year. South Korea’s publicly-funded fusion device, KSTAR, reached 100 million degrees Celsius in September 2022, and the country is increasing efforts working towards a demonstration plant, K-DEMO, in the 2030s. A World Survey of Fusion Devices shows that there are over 130 fusion devices worldwide, in over 50 countries. In the South of France, the experimental ITER project is a multinational collaborative effort, involving China, the European Union, India, Japan, South Korea, Russia, and the US, on track to demonstrate fusion viability.
Ultimately, however, current activities by government and regulators are not yet enough. Fusion commercialisation needs to happen on a timeline that counters the climate and energy crises. Increasing fusion-forward strategy by governments around the world is a key first step, but now is the time for governments and regulatory structures to back up the statements and more strongly align their actions with fusion’s accelerated path to powering the grid. Increased federal funding in fusion research and development; growth of advantageous public-private partnerships; creation of innovative programmes that increase the size and diversity of the future fusion workforce; and risk-informed, fusion-specific regulatory framework certainty are paramount. Not only will forward-leaning strides like these facilitate the path to global fusion power, they will determine which countries are global fusion leaders, at least in the beginning. The climate and energy crises urge action. With increasing conflict and environmental disaster, the National Ignition Facility breakthrough provided proof of possibility for a fusion-powered future. But to make this a reality, policymakers and regulators need to align with the ambitions of the private industry and take deliberate action.