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Nuclear Fusion May Be Nearer Than You Think

A potential source of environmentally friendly fuel, nuclear fusion is attracting billions in investments.

Yan Barcelo 1 November, 2022 | 4:28AM
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Fusion reactor design

According to Pitchbook Data, the dominant category of what constitutes Clean Energy Generation is solar energy, which has attracted more than half of all venture capital investments since 2015. In that period, nuclear fusion energy barely attracted one-fifth of investments - until 2021. But in September of last year, fusion energy’s share of capital raised shot up to 35%.

To date, out of 42 startups that Pitchbook identifies in the field of nuclear fusion, only a handful has taken in the lion’s share of capital. Commonwealth Fusion Systems leads the way with US$2.06 billion of capital raised to this day, followed by TAE Technologies, with US$1.35 billion. Five other companies have raised amounts above US$ 100 million, according to the latest Fusion Industry Association report. Helion Energy has raised US$ 577 million, General Fusion, US$ 300 million, Tokamak Energy, US$ 250 million, and ENN and ZAP Energy, US$ 200 million each. The total capital raised to date amounts to US$ 4.86 billion.

Today, fusion energy is considered one of the key technologies capable of leading us to a net-zero future, with the International Atomic Energy Association ranking it “among the most environmentally friendly sources of energy.” The Fusion Energy Council of Canada lists a few of fusion’s major advantages: unlimited fuel availability, highest energy ratio and density, and minimal environmental impact with “no continuous production of radioactive waste.”

From Myth to Reality

Only 15 years ago, electricity production from nuclear fusion was still considered a mirage. It was the “Fusion Myth”, written about in a 2007 Project Syndicate article by physicist Sebastien Balibar, then-head of the prestigious CNRS research institution in France. “If fusion is ever to work in industrial power stations, it will take many decades,” Balibar wrote. Most optimistic forecasters considered that it wouldn’t see the day before 2050.

But now, that projection has been dramatically scaled back. In its survey asking “when will the first fusion plant deliver electricity to the grid,” the FIA found that 18 companies out of 27 that responded saw it happening between 2025 and 2035. Four of them said it would be before 2030.

In his article, Balibar identified three nearly insurmountable obstacles: producing the necessary tritium on an industrial scale that required methods “that have yet to be invented”; alpha particles produced in the fusion reaction need to be cleaned, something no one had yet accomplished; and the potentially explosive nature of neutron emissions that needs to be addressed.

Unforeseen Inventions

Technology advances and fusion machine configurations are changing the perspective on those obstacles. For example, a machine like General Fusion’s proposes an unexpected magneto-inertial design that has the advantage of side-stepping Balibar’s hurdles. Its use of liquid metal confinement “protects the machine from neutron bombardment,” explains Greg Twinney, CEO of General Fusion, headquartered in Vancouver. That liquid metal wall that surrounds and compresses fusion plasma, he adds, “contains lithium, which is transformed into tritium and helium by fusion neutrons”. As for alpha pollution, “it doesn’t impact our approach because we don’t run plasma continuously (as in a tokamak design); we rather pulse it.” Between pulses, he explains, alpha particles are simply cleared away. Balibar had not seen these inventions coming.

For sure, barriers to electricity production from fusion energy remain, Twinney recognizes, notably around fuel production, the durability of machines and energy conversion. But they are rapidly being chipped away thanks to countless scientific and technological advances that have accelerated the pace of development, notably in superconducting magnets, laser performance, electronic switches, simulation and modelling, and artificial intelligence.

A major threshold still needs to be reached. “Before we talk of any commercial application, the physics must be demonstrated,” asserts Michael Campbell, until recently Director of the Laboratory of Laser Energetics at the University of Rochester. What he calls “physics” is the achievement of greater energy output than input, something that remains to be accomplished in a sustainable manner.

In January, researchers at the National Ignition Facility of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory reached for the first time a “burning plasma”, a state of net energy output in which the plasma becomes self-sustaining. But they achieved it only for a fraction of a second.

Commonwealth Fusion Systems plans on crossing the net energy threshold before 2025 with its SPARC machine, a classic “tokamak” configuration designed in collaboration with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a design Campbell is very familiar with. “SPARC will produce a 10-second long discharge, by which time the plasma will reach a steady state, he explains, “It’s very ambitious, but it is possible by 2025. I’m optimistic they will succeed.”

From Physics to Engineering

After that, the fundamental physics obstacles will morph into engineering challenges to pave the way to electricity on the grid - something Commonwealth plans to achieve by 2035. “Once the science is demonstrated, engineering can do miracles,” Campbell believes.

A telling sign that the commercial feasibility of fusion energy is close at hand hinges on the increasing injection of funds from industrial players and the growing number of commercial partnerships. Most of the money to date has come from venture capital firms and very wealthy individuals like Bill Gates, who has invested in TAE Technologies, and Jeff Bezos, in General Fusion. However, commenting on a recent round of financing at TAE Technologies, Pitchbook notes: “The company raised $250 million of venture funding from Chevron, Sumitomo Corporation of Americas and Google”.

General Fusion, for its part, has lined up collaborations with, among others, BrucePower, the Tennessee Valley Authority, H2 Green steel and Eneco. Of particular interest to these companies is that General Fusion’s engine should be a “plug-and-play” design allowing users to disconnect from the electric grid any existing electricity-generating coal plant and to just connect in its place the fusion engine.

“I believe fusion is the way we will make central energy,” Campbell asserts. Following the money trail, it looks like that could happen sooner than later.

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About Author

Yan Barcelo  A veteran financial and economic journalist with more than 30 years of experience, Yan writes for many publications in Toronto and in Montreal, including CPA MagazineLes Affaires and Commerce.

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