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Private Players Fuel Latest Fusion Craze

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Nuclear fusion has been generating more excitement in recent months than it has in years. A technology more than a half-century in development has gained new prominence, in the media and in board rooms, with billions of dollars of fresh investment flowing into an emerging private sector fueled by some of the planet’s most powerful names and brains. The astronomical ambitions of fusion’s proponents match the promise the technology could one day deliver — zero-carbon energy unbounded by the limits of resources or geography.

Despite the impressive technical milestones and eye-popping fundraising driving news in the sector of late, it is by no means certain that a commercial-scale fusion reactor will be sending power to the grid anytime soon. Private fusion companies now say they will have viable pilot projects up and running by the middle of this decade, with commercial solutions ready to go by the early 2030s. That would be decades ahead of where the most advanced publicly funded projects currently stand, prompting eye rolls from some fusion skeptics.

Still, many investors see the game-changing potential of fusion energy as too great to ignore. Private companies raised more than $2.4 billion in the back half of 2021 alone, more than doubling the total previous investment in the private sector, according to the Fusion Industry Association (FIA), a group formed in 2018. Investors include names like Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates and Google, as well as traditional energy giants like Chevron, Equinor and Eni (see table). “It's one of those things that could be nothing, or it could be completely transformative,” says Max Minzner, general counsel of clean-energy technology firm Arcadia.

Notable Fusion Projects in North America
CompanyLocationTechnical ApproachCapital Raised to DateNotable FundersProject Timeline
Commonwealth Fusion Systems Cambridge, Massachusetts Magnetic confinement (tokamak)$1.8 billionBill Gates, Eni, Equinor, TemasekPilot plant by 2025; power plant early 2030s
TAE Technologies Foothill Ranch, California Advanced beam-driven field reversed configuration$880 million +Google, Kuwait Investment AuthorityDemonstration plant by 2025, prototype power plant late 2020s
General FusionVancouver, CanadaMagnetized target fusion$200 million +Jeff Bezos, Cenovus Energy, TemasekPilot plant by 2025; power plant early 2030s
Helion Everett, WashingtonField reversed configuration, pulsed nonignition$78 millionPeter Thiel, Reid Hoffman, Sam AltmanDemonstration plant in 2022
Zap EnergySeattle, WashingtonZ-pinch$43 millionChevron Technology Ventures, Energy Impact PartnersNot given

Reaching for the Stars

Fusion energy producers look to replicate conditions on the sun and other stars by using extreme pressure and heat — usually 100 million°C or more — to fuse atoms of hydrogen or boron and harness the immense energy released from the process. Decades of research and development, mostly funded by governments and universities, have demonstrated the theoretical potential. But no project or specific technology has achieved what’s known as “scientific break-even,” or Q=1, in which the amount of output energy matches the input, let alone approached Q=10 or 20, the bare minimum needed to fuel the reactor itself with enough left over to power a grid or other processes.

So why is fusion getting so much attention now? One reason is the urgency surrounding climate change, which many companies say is driving their accelerated timelines. Another is the sheer volume of available capital eager to fund world-changing technologies and an ambitious private sector that has sprouted as a result.

The FIA currently counts 27 companies, all privately backed, among its official members. FIA CEO Andrew Holland says no two companies in the group are pursuing the same technological solution, which he says increases the likelihood that at least one of the technologies in development will be successful.

Tokamak Tech

Magnetic confinement is the best-known approach to fusion. It usually comes in the form of a tokamak, the most advanced fusion technology and the solution deployed by large international projects such as Iter in southern France and the Joint European Torus (Jet) in the UK.

Tokamaks have made significant strides in recent years, including news this month that Jet had produced 59 megajoules of energy over five seconds (11 megawatts of power), more than doubling the lab’s previous world record, set in 1997. Few of the private fusion companies are pursuing tokamaks due largely to the high costs — Iter’s price tag is estimated to be in the tens of billions of dollars — although several have their own twists on magnetic confinement.

One prominent US firm, Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS), is advancing a tokamak solution that it says is much smaller and thus cheaper than the existing machines. A CFS spokesperson says the company’s key “breakthrough” came last year when it demonstrated a powerful proprietary magnet it had built out of a newly commercialized high-temperature superconducting material known as Rebco (rare earth barium copper oxide). CFS now has funding to build a device called Sparc, a “proof of concept” due on line in 2025 that it claims will be “the world’s first commercially relevant net-energy fusion machine.” It aims to have its first fusion power plant, Arc, operating by the early 2030s.

Competing Technologies

Inertial confinement, which uses focused lasers to spark the fusion reaction, is another well-known approach, most notably at the National Ignition Facility at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. Only two private companies are taking this approach, which is generally less efficient in terms of producing net power.

Most companies are taking a sort of a hybrid approach. Canada-based General Fusion, which also aims to have a demonstration plant operational by 2025 and a commercial plant on line in the early 2030s, uses a process it calls magnetized target fusion. It uses compression drivers and a proprietary digital control system to mold a rotating sphere of liquid metal made of lead-lithium, creating a cavity containing “fusion conditions” where hydrogen plasma is injected to create a reaction. Jay Brister, General Fusion’s chief business development officer, says the liquid metal alleviates the “first wall problem” common in other fusion solutions in which the confining material can’t withstand the bombardment of heat and radioactive particles.

‘The Speed of Doing Business’

Brister and other fusion advocates say the big difference between now and earlier periods of ultimately misplaced excitement are ancillary advancements such as high-speed computing and 3-D printing, which enable more precise modeling and manufacturing practices. Those, combined with the influx of funding, have helped push the private fusion sector to new heights, he says.

“You go from taking science and technology and moving it forward at the speed of government … and you convert that into the speed of doing business,” Brister says. “One is built upon the other, but there is a different rate of delivery that an investor-backed organization is responding to.”

Pumping the Brakes

Physicists are quick to point out that while recent developments are encouraging, there is no reason yet to believe commercial fusion energy is around the corner.

Robert Goldston, former director of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, says the dearth of published data around many of the private companies’ claims means there is no way to judge how likely any of the schemes are to work. Daniel Jassby, a retired plasma physicist from Princeton and an outspoken fusion skeptic, has dismissed the technology claims of non-tokamak projects as "voodoo fusion." He says the “principal flaw” of all these concepts is that they produce “infinitesimal” levels of fusion neutrons, if any at all. The measure of the neutron output is “the equivalent of the rubber hitting the road,” he says.

Goldston says the current levels of funding and the general start-up mentality could propel the fusion sector more quickly than expected, but it’s still a long shot. “They might just flat out fail, but they’ll fail fast,” he says. “The odds are indomitably long, but I’m an advocate for pursuing those things.”

Topics:
Nuclear, Emerging Technologies
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