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January 23, 2023

Explainer: What you need to know about fusion energy

A recent scientific breakthrough finally made clean energy via nuclear fusion a real possibility – but it is one that will take considerable time and money.

The prospect of near-limitless, clean energy came a step closer on December 5 2022, following a successful nuclear fusion experiment at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California.

The occasion marked the first time in more than seven decades of research that scientists registered a net energy gain, producing more energy than was needed to initiate a fusion reaction. US energy secretary Jennifer Granholm called it one of the most “impressive scientific feats of the 21st century”. 

How it works

Since the 1950s, researchers have been trying to harness nuclear fusion’s potential to develop a sustainable energy source. The process generates energy by fusing two or more light atomic nuclei – typically hydrogen – to form a single, heavier nucleus. In doing so, it releases three to four times more energy than the fission technology that powers existing nuclear plants. Moreover, nuclear fusion has the added advantage of not producing long-lasting nuclear waste or greenhouse gases, making it the ideal clean energy solution.

The conditions to create a fusion reaction can be found in stars, where crushing gravitational forces facilitate this process, but they aren’t easily replicated in a controlled manner on earth.

Of the various technology pathways that have been explored in pursuit of fusion power, toroidal magnetic confinement is the most mature. This involves heating hydrogen isotopes – normally deuterium and tritium – to temperatures in excess of 100mn degrees Celsius, under immense pressure, by using magnetic fields in a device known as a tokamak. 

“Toroidal confinement is difficult. It’s not a simple thing to do. It’s harder than putting someone on the moon,” says Matthew Hole, professor at the Australian National University and chair of the Australian International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, or ITER, forum. 

This complexity means that, despite the latest development, fusion power is unlikely to be a near-term solution to the world’s energy problems. Most estimates say the first commercialised fusion power facility will be operational in the 2040s. Despite the wait, however, advocates of the technology are quick to point out that near-endless, sustainable energy will be indispensable for human civilisation in the future. 

“If you had fusion power online, you could do all sorts of things. I mean, the question becomes: what could you do with the infinite sustainable power? It provides lots of energy options,” says Hole. 

Ready for private financing?

Government-backed initiatives have accounted for the lion’s share of nuclear fusion research over the past few decades. ITER – currently the biggest experiment in the world – is a multinational effort involving 35 countries. The project, which is scheduled to start functioning in 2025, is on a vast scale; the tokamak alone weighs 23,000 tonnes, equivalent to three Eiffel towers. 

While this scale could help to deliver meaningful scientific progress, it comes with a hefty price tag. ITER has blown well beyond its initial €6bn budget, with most recent estimates putting its construction and operating expenses in the tens of billions of euros. It has also taken years of political, scientific and budgetary wrangling, characterised by obstructions and delays. 

However, in recent years a growing number of smaller private companies have been pushing ahead with their own research alongside the large publicly funded projects. Christos Stavrou, chief executive of Fusion Reactors, a private fusion energy company in the UK, believes this offers private sector players more speed and flexibility relative to bigger government-backed schemes.

“The private sector has a much more aggressive timeline,” he says. “So if you look at the published timelines that each sector aspires to fulfil, the private sector is looking to commercialise fusion power by the early to mid-2030s, but the earliest public fusion commercialisation aspiration is for the 2040s.”  

This growth in private enterprises has been facilitated by an increase in private funding. Research from the Fusion Industry Association suggests that $2.83bn in declared private financing was announced between 2021 and 2022 for the more than 30 different private companies. “As time goes by, more and more investors are interested and are very receptive to the idea that fusion is going to power the world very soon,” says Stavrou. 

New research and due diligence

The increase in private fusion companies is expanding the sector’s research horizon. Though magnetic toroidal confinement is the dominant pathway for most businesses and state-backed research efforts, some companies are looking at fusion power from a different angle. 

For example, Australian company HB11 Energy is pursuing non-thermal laser-initiated fusion using a hydrogen-boron combination. If successful, this approach would remove the need for the super-high temperatures required for more typical deuterium-tritium fusion, and the associated equipment and advanced engineering requirements. 

“We obviously think that the engineering challenges that we’re leapfrogging with hydrogen-boron fusion will [give us an advantage],” says HB11 Energy managing director Warren McKenzie. 

Nevertheless, the road ahead for private fusion power companies is unlikely to be smooth. Although funding channels have increased, there is some way to go before the requisite understanding and expertise builds out across the broader investment community. “There is, generally speaking, a lack of knowledge in deep technology. One of the big problems is that there is a lack of people who can do due diligence on a fusion power investment,” says McKenzie. 

Even so, the direction of travel for fusion power seems to be going one way. With more resources and commitment from public and private sector players being allocated to the cause, a nuclear fusion future appears all but certain. The biggest question now is: how soon will it arrive? 

Photo credit: Damien Jemison/Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory via AP

A service from the Financial Times