n old adage on nuclear fusion jokes that the technology, often seen as a pipe dream, is permanently 30 years away. Despite nearly a century of research, the answers to basic questions—like whether or not it will even be a viable energy source—remains just out of our grasp. So, why has nuclear fusion consistently remained on the forefront of scientific research?
The promise of nuclear fusion is a lofty one—by replicating the chemical reactions that fuel the sun in a controlled environment, scientists hope to establish a form of energy that is both immensely powerful and completely carbon-neutral. Unlike fission—the process behind the world’s nuclear plants and weapons—fusion produces zero radioactive waste. If utilized correctly, fusion reactors could guarantee clean power worldwide, even in nations that lack the proper environmental endowments necessary for other renewables. Within a Tokamak—a doughnut-shaped vacuum chamber—isotopes of hydrogen (generally deuterium and tritium) are fused together to form a helium atom. This is achieved by heating the atoms to over 100 million degrees Celsius, upon which they transform into a plasma cloud that is then controlled by magnets until fusion occurs. The process releases an incredible amount of energy, and would be the most efficient method of generating electricity ever developed by humans—each liter of fuel produces as much power as 55,000 barrels of oil, and 1,000 liters can provide power for up to 10 million households. Because the only required input is hydrogen, fusion can be achieved simply by extracting the necessary atoms from seawater.
In Southern France, a project that may prove to be world’s best shot at achieving fusion is currently underway. The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), which is planned to be the world’s largest tokamak, recently entered the assembly phase after years of research and the construction of a massive housing chamber. In an era of rising nationalism and xenophobia, ITER stands as a monument to the power of global cooperation; 35 nations in total are involved with the project, which allows for free passage of both reactor materials and, perhaps more importantly, ideas—ITER is entirely collaborative, and encourages collective ownership of intellectual property so that the global mission is prioritized over any individual nation’s ambitions. ITER plans on reaching “first plasma” in 2025, and hopes to be producing 500 MW of power with fusion from 50 MW of input by 2035. This would make it the first reactor to reach breakeven—the point at which more energy is produced than is expended in the process. While a number of issues, including budgetary overspend and multi-year delays, have hampered ITER’s progress, it has nevertheless carried onwards undeterred.
ITER’s grand issue comes in its mission. The reactor is not a model—its size and cost ensures that it cannot feasibly be replicated across the world to power individual electric grids. Instead, it hopes to teach through collaboration and serve as a concept for member nations to expand upon, allowing them to construct their own reactors by 2055. But as the United Nations warns that the world has only 12 years to turn the tide of climate change before some of its worst effects are realized, many are seeing the project as a futile effort.
The promise of nuclear fusion is a lofty one—by replicating the chemical reactions that fuel the sun in a controlled environment, scientists hope to establish a form of energy that is both immensely powerful and completely carbon-neutral.
Spurred by the slow pace of ITER and other government programs, which are perceived as inefficient and swollen with misused funding, private enterprises have emerged across the world presenting ambitious new ideas on how to make fusion a reality, searching for answers beyond the technology that has already been explored. The Fusion Industry Association, a coalition of businesses working in the field, now boasts 21 members. In search of ventures that are faster, more reactive to sudden change, and more willing to innovate, investors have poured over $1.5 billion into fusion energy in recent years. Breakthrough Energy Ventures, a newly-established billion-dollar fund for clean energy backed by a number of prominent, wealthy individuals, recently added Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS), a fusion startup founded in 2017 by former staff from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to its investment portfolio. In direct response to ITER’s vast timeframe, CFS has pledged to have an experimental reactor online and achieving breakeven within 3 years, a seemingly impossible goal that they hope to achieve through their usage of experimental superconducting magnets. Across the ocean in the United Kingdom, First Light aims to reinvent the process entirely. By firing projectiles at over 50,000 miles per hour at a fuel pellet of isotopes, they hope to achieve a viable reaction sooner with a tokamak significantly easier to construct. A project engineer who had formerly worked in a government lab claims that he achieved more in 3 years with First Light than he had in the 20 years prior - an indicator of the edge that private enterprise now holds. In California, TAE Technologies adds boron to the fuel mixture and utilizes a cylindrical colliding beam fusion reactor that employs particle accelerators to collide streams of plasma, creating a “spinning toroid” in a compact space. All of these ventures serve to remind us that until we cross the numerous hurdles standing in the way of achieving fusion, we should not be so certain of what form it will take.
Innovative as these companies may be, theirs paths forward remain unsure. Despite the recent spike in investment, the immense cost associated with fusion is still a major hindrance. China’s premier Tokamak costs $15,000 per day just to power on, and it is likely that ill-prepared ventures will eventually face budgetary issues that mirror ITER’s. First Light, for example, does not expect to generate revenue until 2025, when it hopes to begin selling its trademark fuel pellets; until then, they are entirely at the mercy of their investors, who may be discouraged if the road gets bumpy. Skeptics of these fusion startups argue that they are making impossible promises—TAE, for example, would need to heat its plasma to at least a billion degrees for fusion to initiate, a side effect of their choice to utilize boron in the mixture. Some charge the burgeoning industry with pursuing ambitious technologies for their appeal without considering their actual viability on the electrical grid. These issues, however, may actually highlight the importance of private scientific enterprise. Even in their missteps, these companies are providing the world with essential knowledge regarding what works and what doesn’t, and are slowly helping build a working vision of what a future powered by fusion will look like. Such a complicated technology cannot be a monolith, and as the decades pass, we may discover ITER’s subscription to one specific vision has left the world with an inefficient or even unworkable model.
In October, the Department of Energy announced the creation of the Innovation Network for Fusion Energy (INFUSE), a program which seeks to blaze the path towards commercial fusion by providing applicants with access to government laboratories, allowing them to conquer technological hurdles that previously inhibited them. Through the elimination of financial and infrastructural prerequisites, INFUSE signals a move towards a new dichotomy in which the innovation of the private sector is bolstered by public funding, allowing for exciting new ideas to shape our concept of a fusion-powered world. This sort of relationship additionally alleviates the massive levels of bloat and rigidity that have hindered government initiatives. If nuclear fusion is to become the panacea for Earth’s climate problems, programs like ITER and INFUSE that pool the sum of human knowledge should continue to be pursued.