Nuclear Fusion: Shooting for the Moon?
Nuclear Fusion: Shooting for the Moon?

Nuclear fusion is attracting keen global interest and billions of dollars of investment in the hope it will be the key to a clean energy future. Yet, the prospects of success are uncertain as the industry grapples with technological challenges and a limited field of developers.

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.


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.


Significant amounts of investment have been raised to transform fusion into a potential game-changer for power generation.
Significant amounts of investment have been raised to transform fusion into a potential game-changer for power generation.

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.


The nuclear fusion dilemma

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.


Both fission and fusion are nuclear reactions that produce energy, but the physical processes are different.
Both fission and fusion are nuclear reactions that produce energy, but the physical processes are different.

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.

The projects leading the way

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:


  • ITER: Founded in 1988, ITER, which stands for International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, is a joint project in France involving collaboration from 35 countries. ITER uses a tokamak reactor design, which confines superheated plasma using multiple magnetic coils. Construction of ITER began in the 2010s with a goal of completion by 2025 and going into operation by 2035. ITER is not intended to produce electricity but simply to demonstrate how fusion reactors can be net-positive energy.


  • Commonwealth Fusion Systems: Launched in 2018 in partnership with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, U.S.-based Commonwealth Fusion Systems aims to build a tokamak reactor using high-temperature superconducting magnets. It claims this will allow it to produce one-fifth of the power output of the ITER but with less than 2% of the volume in reactor size, thanks to its more powerful magnets. Commonwealth Fusion Systems is at a very early stage and currently focused on initial superconducting magnet research.


  • General Fusion: General Fusion was founded in Canada in 2002 and has a design that uses synchronised pistons to compress a liquid lithium metal core that then compresses injected plasma fuel to the point of fusion. The company is in the process of building a pilot device to showcase net-positive energy production rather than produce electricity as yet.


  • Tokamak Energy: Tokamak Energy was founded in the United Kingdom in 2009 and uses a unique shape for its reactor, which it claims allows it to make smaller systems. The company has achieved a plasma temperature of 15,000,000°C using superconducting magnets and aims to be ready for commercialisation by 2030.


  • Tri Alpha Energy: Formed in 1998 in the United States, Tri Alpha Energy has a reactor design that shoots high energy beams of hydrogen plasma at a central plasma to induce fusion. The company has achieved plasma lifetimes long enough for fusion, but its fuel mixture of hydrogen and boron requires temperatures of near 3,000,000,000°C – a significant hurdle to commercial-scale operations.


  • Lockheed Martin: The United States-based defence contractor Lockheed Martin has been developing a compact fusion reactor since 2015, and announced the following year it would continue funding the venture despite the long-term research and development timeline. In contrast to tokamak reactor designs, Lockheed Martin uses a higher density plasma, which in theory would allow for smaller reactors and the unlocking of additional applications beyond baseload power production.
Watch this video to discover more about nuclear fusion and the progress in harnessing its power. Source: Fusion Industry Association.

Turning dreams into reality

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.