How far is the power of nuclear fusion?  We could be at a turning point in technology

How far is the power of nuclear fusion? We could be at a turning point in technology

Our society faces the great challenge of providing sustainable, safe and affordable means of generating energy, while trying to reduce carbon dioxide emissions to net zero by 2050.

To date, fusion energy developments, which potentially tick all of these boxes, have been funded almost exclusively by the public sector. However, something is changing.

Private equity investment in the global smelting industry has more than doubled in just one year, from US$2.1 billion in 2021 to US$4.7 billion in 2022, according to a survey by the Fusion Industry Association.

So what is driving this recent change? There is something to be excited about.

Before we explore that, let’s take a quick detour to recap what fusion power is.

Merge atoms together

Fusion works similarly to our Sun, by fusing two heavy hydrogen atoms together under extreme heat and pressure to release large amounts of energy.

This is the opposite of the fission process used by nuclear power plants, in which atoms are split to release large amounts of energy.

Sustaining large-scale nuclear fusion has the potential to produce a safe, clean and nearly inexhaustible source of energy.

Our Sun sustains fusion at its core with a plasma of charged particles at around 15 million degrees Celsius. On Earth, we’re aiming for hundreds of millions of degrees Celsius because we don’t have the huge mass of the Sun that compresses the fuel for us.

Scientists and engineers have come up with several designs to achieve this, but most fusion reactors use strong magnetic fields to “bottle” and confine the hot plasma.

A bird's eye view of a spherical metal clad room with a tall column in the middle and a person in a white protective suit inspecting one of the walls
A doughnut-shaped magnetic confinement device called a tokamak is one of the main designs for a working fusion power generator, with many such experiments underway around the world.
Christopher Roux, EUROfusion Consortium, CC BY

Generally, the main challenge to overcome on our path to commercial fusion power is to provide environments capable of containing the intense burning plasma needed to produce a self-sustaining fusion reaction, producing more energy than it enough to start it.

Join the public and the private

Fusion development has been progressing since the 1950s. Most of it has been driven by government funding of basic science.

Today, a growing number of private fusion companies around the world are turning to commercial fusion energy. A change in government attitude played a crucial role in this regard.

Read more: We won’t have fusion generators in five years. But the holy grail of clean energy may still be on the way

The US and UK governments encourage public-private partnerships to complement their strategic research programs.

For example, the White House recently announced that it would develop a “Bold 10-Year Vision for Commercial Fusion Energy.”

In the UK, the government has invested in a program to connect a fusion generator to the national power grid.

Technology has also advanced

In addition to public-private resources, the technologies we need for smelting have come on leaps and bounds.

In 2021, scientists at MIT and Commonwealth Fusion Systems have developed a record-breaking magnet that will allow them to build a compact fusion device called SPARC “that is significantly smaller, cheaper, and in a faster timeframe.”

In recent years, several fusion experiments have also achieved the all-important milestone of maintaining plasma temperatures of 100 million degrees Celsius or more. These include the EAST experiment in China, the Korean KSTAR flagship experiment and the British company Tokamak Energy.

These incredible feats demonstrate an unprecedented ability to replicate the conditions found inside our Sun and to keep extremely hot plasma trapped long enough to promote fusion.

In February, the Joint European Torus – the world’s most powerful operational tokamak – announced world record energy containment.

And the next stage of the fusion power experiment to demonstrate the net power gain, ITER, is being built in France and is now around 80% complete.

Magnets aren’t the only path to fusion, either. In November 2021, the National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California achieved a historic breakthrough for inertial confinement fusion.

By focusing nearly 200 powerful lasers to confine and compress a target the size of a pencil eraser, they produced a small fusion “hot spot” that generated fusion energy over a short period of time.

In Australia, a company called HB11 is developing proton-boron fusion technology through a combination of high-powered lasers and magnetic fields.

Fusion and renewables can go hand in hand

It is crucial that investment in fusion does not come at the expense of other forms of renewable energy and the transition from fossil fuels.

We can afford to expand the adoption of current renewable energy technologies such as solar, wind and hydropower while developing next-generation solutions for power generation.

This exact strategy was outlined recently by the United States in their Net-Zero Game Changers initiative. In this plan, resource investment will aim to develop a pathway to rapid decarbonization alongside the commercial development of fusion.

History shows us that incredible scientific and technical progress is possible when we work with the right resources – the rapid development of COVID-19 vaccines is just one recent example.

Clearly, many scientists, engineers, and now governments and private investors (and even fashion designers) have decided that fusion energy is a solution worth pursuing, not a pipe dream. Right now, this is the best chance we’ve had to make fusion power a viable reality.

Read more: Nuclear fusion: how excited should we be?

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