Countries throughout the world are in search of solutions to address the threats of climate change. Industrialized nations are trying to cut greenhouse gas emissions and adopt clean energy as major strategies. (Dive deeper into the development of clean energy technology in this Bold story.) But scientists and experts fear these efforts may be too little, too late. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be aggressively pursued. But additional investments into alternative energy sources are needed to truly save the planet and humankind in the long run. Among the most viable solutions in this regard is nuclear fusion energy. Unlike other clean energy sources, the energy produced by nuclear fusion offers a tremendous payoff. And because of this, a number of government and private sector projects have begun.
In a nutshell, nuclear fusion energy is the same energy that fuels the sun and the stars. And unlike fossil fuels, the energy produced by nuclear fusion doesn’t have harmful byproducts to the environment. Naturally, the potential for such massive amounts of clean energy has been attractive to all sectors. But only recently does it look like endeavors in this area may have viable commercial offerings. There is still much work to be done, and it will be likely decades before nuclear fusion energy is broadly accessible. But progress is already being made, attracting the attention of a growing number of investors.
“The investment and the human ingenuity that’s been put into fusion is starting to demonstrate some really interesting breakthroughs recently. The biggest of those has been the emergence of a private sector in fusion, which suggests that there’s some market confidence.” – Arthur Turrell, Deputy Director, Data Science Campus, Office for National Statistics, UK
The Promise of Nuclear Fusion Energy
When many people think about the energy produced by nuclear fusion, they mistake it for nuclear fission. Nuclear fission, which is creates energy from the splitting of atoms, represents the science behind nuclear power plants today. Of course, this approach has a variety of disadvantages. Two of the most notable concerns of nuclear fission involve nuclear waste and the potential for reactor meltdowns. These significantly limit their use on a larger scale without increasing the risk of harm. Fortunately, nuclear fusion has neither of these risks, which makes it immediately more attractive.
But this is not the only major advantages when considering nuclear fusion energy. Nuclear fusion refers to the process where two hydrogen atoms combine. Under intense heat, in the realm of 100 degrees Celsius, hydrogen atoms combine to form a plasma that releases helium. In the process, massive amounts of energy are released. For comparison purposes, the energy produced by nuclear fusion creates 4 times the amount of nuclear fission. It also produces 4 million times the amount of energy created by burning coal. Plus, hydrogen is readily available, and the process creates no greenhouse gas emissions. It’s therefore obvious why nuclear fusion energy has such an appeal.
“People have been working at this for decades trying to achieve this. I think [recent breakthroughs have] extremely energized the whole community.” – Annie Kritcher, Physicist, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
Overcoming the Challenges of Nuclear Fusion
Of course, collecting energy produced by nuclear fusion is not that easy. For one, hydrogen atoms must be heated to 100-150 million degrees Celsius before fusion occurs. There is nothing currently available, however, to contain and control the energy from such heating should it occur. Because of this, governments, consortiums, and even private industries are experimenting with possible solutions. The primary one involves massive, powerful magnets that can perform such a purpose. Likewise, feasible approaches, such as laser fusion, must be developed to create such intense heat. These along with the sheer costs of developing these solutions have been the major obstacles to date.
While these remain formidable barriers, breakthroughs are being made. ITER, a consortium involving 7 nations, have begin construction of a 100-foot diameter device in Southern France. The international megaproject has already collected $25 billion in government funding to support its work. Over 80 percent complete currently, the device requires over 100 acres of land. Neither the cost nor size offers feasible commercial solutions. However, the energy produced by nuclear fusion with such a device will prove its viability as a future solution. Thus, while these projects strive to overcome hurdles, it will be other projects that advance these breakthroughs further.
“We have moved out of theory and into demonstration that it can be done. There’s still a lot of work to do to make it a reproducible process, but it’s moved out of the realm of science fiction.” – Mike Farrell, VP, Inertial Fusion Technology, General Atomics
Private-Public Partnerships the Likely Future for Nuclear Fusion
Without question, nuclear fusion energy requires big money. Surprisingly, however, private startups have already acquired significant funding from private investors. In total, the private sector involved in the energy produced by nuclear fusion has received nearly $2 billion. Many investors are billionaires like BillGates, Elon Musk, and others. But increasingly, other venture capital firms are starting to show interest as well. As science comes closer to validating the feasibility of nuclear fusion energy, investments will grow. Most believe it will be these private enterprises that will combine the science with technologies to create commercial products.
Several such startups are already involved in the energy produced by nuclear fusion. Tokamak Energy was founded in Britain in 2009. It is planning on piloting a $1 billion machine in the future for commercial nuclear fusion energy. Another company involved in these projects is Commonwealth Fusion Systems, which evolved out of M.I.T. Other startups also include General Atomics as well as TAE Technologies. Both are based in California despite taking different approaches regarding energy produced by nuclear fusion. Momentum is therefore clearly increasing. Since the 1990s, over 35 startups have entered into this field.
Bridging the Gap Before Nuclear Fusion Realities
Scientists and startups are both quick to admit that nuclear fusion energy is not right around the corner. Much works needs to be done to make these solutions smaller in scale and size and lower in cost. But the promise of the energy produced by nuclear fusion and the threats of climate change are fueling progress. And this progress is definitely accelerating. This is why other efforts at clean energy must be pursued in the meantime. But in terms of the long game, nuclear fusion energy looks to be a clear favorite.