Fusion: A Giant Step for Energy

One very, very hot bottle
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Francis Scialabba

· 7 min read

You probably learned about nuclear fusion in high school environmental science: It was built up as a clean, high-yield, virtually limitless source of power. Then, the bell rang, you went to lunch, and it was never spoken of again.

For decades, commercial fusion energy was a great idea handicapped by the limits of plasma physics. But recent advances in material science and fusion reactors could change that

One very, very hot bottle

Nuclear power plants, like the one Homer Simpson works at, use fission, the splitting of uranium atoms to generate energy. Fusion does the opposite, fusing hydrogen nuclei together to release helium and energy in the process. Well-known practitioners include our very own sun, other stars in the galaxy, and Matthew McConaughey in Interstellar.

The science underpinning fusion is well understood, but making it happen here on Earth is quite tricky. Scientists are looking to “basically take a star and put it in a bottle,” according to fusion expert Brandon Sorbom.

  • Engineering hurdles include heating the plasma up to 100 million °C (which we can do), sustaining these temperatures for extended periods of time (still working on this), and building a device capable of withstanding the pummeling of a million Arizona summers all at once (also a work in progress).
  • Another key challenge is creating a system that generates more power that it consumes, says Dennis Whyte, MIT professor and director of the Plasma Science and Fusion Center. The good news is, once the reaction is going, as long as fuel is continuously supplied you can laissez les bon temp[erature]s rouler.

Today there are two main approaches to fusion, according to the World Nuclear Association: magnetic confinement (which, you guessed it, uses magnetic fields to contain plasma) and inertial confinement (which uses lasers or particle beams). Most of the academic fusion community has focused on magnetic confinement through tokamaks (donut-shaped containment chambers), Sorbom said.

  • Vocab lesson: Tokamaks derive their name from “toroidalnya kamera ee magnetnaya katushka”—Russian for the no-less-confusing “torus-shaped magnetic chamber.” For obvious reasons, we’ll be sticking to the abbreviation.

These devices take a lot of manpower and resources to build, so good luck getting a large-scale project off the ground without the help of government funding or billionaire philanthropists.

In the south of France, scientists from around the world are forgoing romantic walks along the Riviera to build ITER, an international fusion project that will create not only the world’s largest tokamak, but (fingers crossed) the first fusion device to generate net energy. With 35 countries collaborating—including the U.S., Russia, China, India, and EU members—it might be one of the only areas of peaceful international collaboration left. 

  • By the late 2030s, the ITER tokamak is expected to produce up to 500 megawatts of fusion power in pulses that last 400 seconds, Danas Ridikas, head of the physics at the International Atomic Energy Agency, told the Brew.
  • ITER may a science-driven venture, but any effort to move the R&D needle forward benefits commercial ventures as well.

Other technologies, such as supercomputing, big data analysis, and 3D printing could help accelerate progress in the field, said Ridikas. Quantum computing, which we profiled earlier this week, is expected to drive breakthroughs in fields like high energy physics.

Sun’s in the bottle, so what’s next?

After scientists prove they can maintain plasma for extended periods of time and generate a working device, they can then work on a fusion demonstration power plant that is able to connect to the power grid, said Ridikas. And once they have that, they can work on future commercial fusion power plants. Easy peasy, right?

Sorbom, who’s chief science officer at MIT-spinoff Commonwealth Fusion Systems, was recently recognized for a breakthrough in tokamak electromagnetic systems that could make tokamaks or fusion devices smaller (and cheaper) to build. With tokamaks the size of a house instead of a football field…that could open up the field for more players and speed the path to commercial fusion energy on the grid. 

  • By 2025, CFS and MIT are trying to build a power plant prototype (called Sparc) using the new electromagnetic system. Sparc = Kitty Hawk for fusion energy, proving it can be done but only flying a few hundred feet.
  • Five to 10 years after Sparc is working, Sorbom and the CFS team hope to complete Arc (a demonstration power plant that can put electricity on the grid). Arc = the transatlantic flight.

Transitioning the world’s current energy production to renewables is a massive undertaking, and fusion power will help not only clean up energy production, but scale it tenfold worldwide, according to Sorbom. It will be “almost like solar energy, but you control the light switch on the sun, and you also have the dimmer switch.” `

  • Bonus: Fuel (hydrogen isotopes) is theoretically limitless. 
  • Double bonus: Nuclear energy has a bad rep, and as much as we want another season of Chernobyl to binge watch, no one wants that happening in their backyard. But with fusion, “there is no risk for a meltdown accident,” Ridikas said. “If any disturbance occurs, the plasma cools within seconds and the fusion reaction stops.” Maybe an HBO special about a power outage instead? 

Why now? Until recently, fusion energy was dominated by plasma physics, which kept it a pretty niche field, Sorbom said. Now on the slow and steady path to #mainstream, the community needs people of all backgrounds to get involved.

  • Yes, this means engineers and scientists who can help build a fusion reactor. But it also means business people who can scale, commercialize, and get fusion energy out into the real world.
  • One of the most exciting things about fusion R&D today is its focus on the ecosystem—figuring out what a fusion-driven economy would look like as well as the economic targets and applications, said MIT’s Whyte.
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A healthy dose of reality: There’s a running joke that fusion is the energy of the future…and always will be. Even if projects like CFS’s hit their benchmarks on time, fusion energy is years or decades away from realization, let alone from grid integration and global reach. But Sorbom and Whyte were both optimistic that they would see functioning fusion energy in their lifetime. 

Because no matter how you frame it, the promise of a clean, carbon-free baseload power that could yield four times as much as fission reactors is a good deal and worth trying for.

Did you get all that? Here are some refreshers just in case

The promise: Clean, carbon-free, energy with a theoretically limitless source of fuel, capable of higher yields that existing fission energy. 

The roadblocks: Scientists can heat plasma up to 100 million °C, but they’re still working on sustaining these temperatures for extended periods of time and building reactors that can withstand the heat. 

The timeline: Experts believe we’ll see working fusion energy in our lifetime. They’re still trying to build better reactors today (and after that, they have to tackle demonstration then commercial power plants), but recent breakthroughs have many optimistic. 

The players: Governments (U.S., EU, Russia, Japan, China, Brazil, Canada, Korea), companies (Lockheed Martin, Commonwealth Fusion Systems, General Fusion, Tokamak Energy, AGNI Energy), Academia (MIT, Princeton), and billionaires (Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Peter Thiel).

Keep up with the innovative tech transforming business

Tech Brew keeps business leaders up-to-date on the latest innovations, automation advances, policy shifts, and more, so they can make informed decisions about tech.