By Benjamin Torda, Lux Research
By Benjamin Torda, Lux Research
There is a buzz about nuclear fusion these days. As global concerns accelerate over climate change and the need for decarbonisation, the nuclear fusion industry is being seen by some as a future powerhouse in clean energy generation.
Developers have successfully raised significant amounts from investors, and a succession of technological breakthroughs appear to be transforming fusion into a potential game-changer for power generation.
A survey of 23 worldwide developers by the Fusion Industry Association (FIA) and the UK Atomic Energy Authority published in October 2021 found 18 of them already declared private funding of almost US$1.8 billion, in addition to US$85 million in grants and other funding from governments.
After the report was published, several FIA member companies secured new funding of more than US$4 billion. Among them is Commonwealth Fusion Systems, which raised over US$1.8 billion from a group of renowned investors including Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and Soros Fund Management LLC.
This article explores some of the key developers and projects in nuclear fusion, and their potential to transform our future energy landscape.
There are two types of nuclear reactions – fusion and fission – both of which produce energy. Nuclear fission has a rich commercial history with sustained innovation and potential to have a realistic impact on the energy transition before 2050.
While nuclear fusion has theoretical advantages over fission, there are currently no commercial fusion reactors due to the complexities of sustaining and harvesting energy from fusion reactions.
Nuclear fusion reactors are based on the concept of forcing two atomic nuclei to combine or fuse, a process that can release massive amounts of energy. There are a number of proposals on how to achieve fusion, though all involve heating a gas to between 1,000,000°C and 3,000,000,000°C, and containing it long enough for nuclei to fuse.
Containing the superheated gas – plasma – is achieved using strong magnetic fields. Depending on the fuel used, the reaction can also potentially produce harmful neutron radiation. Critically, the puzzle of how to turn the heat energy produced into electricity remains unsolved.
While nuclear fusion has the potential to produce low-cost, clean energy, fusion developers remain a distance away from commercialising the technology. Questions remain over whether the process can, in practice, ever produce more energy than it consumes.
Despite these challenges, many players in the energy industry are closely monitoring the technological development of nuclear fusion because of its immense disruptive potential.
Optimism is high, with about 80% of developer companies interviewed by FIA expecting fusion will first power the grid somewhere in the world in the 2030s or before, while around 20% believe that it won’t be ready until the 2040s or 2050s. Realistically, however, fusion is unlikely to play any tangible role in the energy system before 2050.
As nuclear fusion is a novel technology with a long development timeline, there are only a handful of developers with a number of competing reactor and system designs. Some of the most promising developers and projects in terms of potential for commercialisation are:
Nuclear fusion has the potential to drastically disrupt the energy industry if it achieves commercialisation, bringing large-scale baseload power online quickly, and displacing coal, natural gas, and possibly even solar and wind energy.
That “if” remains a very large one, however, as the nascent technology has a far less robust developers’ landscape than those that have driven commercialisation for other types of renewable energy. The handful of developers pushing the technology forward are at least a decade away from an operational demonstration unit.
There are lingering questions on the capital required to build large-scale systems, as well as difficulties in predicting operation and maintenance costs. Even a company such as Commonwealth Fusion Systems – with an injection of more than US$1.8 billion – does not expect to bring online its first unit until the 2030s.
With research and development continuing even in projects that have been active for more than three decades, nuclear fusion should – for the time being at least – be considered more of a moonshot technology rather than an emerging disruptor to the energy transition.