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2021 could be nuclear fusion’s breakthrough year

Advancements in core technologies happening around the world mean that humanity could soon achieve a breakthrough in energy generation without greenhouse gas emissions.

In China, the US, and Europe new innovations are heralding the potential development of viable commercial nuclear fusion reactors within the next decade — at costs billions less than the massive multinational effort that’s currently under construction in Southern France.

That project began with an agreement nearly forty years ago between the U.S. and the Soviet Union to develop peaceful applications for fusion energy. Over the years contributors grew to include China, the European Union, India, Japan and Korea.

Its development ensured that fusion research kept humming and its EUR42 billion price tag (one of the most expensive international development projects in history) seems like it may finally pay dividends.

Undaunted by ITER’s big price tag private investors are placing their own bets on startup companies developing smaller scale fusion reactors than the ITER that they hope will create commercially viable power within the next ten years.

Over the past year, different private companies and individual national projects across the world have announced advances to different reactor designs. These innovations range from superconducting magnets to super powerful lasers and super small nano-structured materials, that they hope will make fusion power a reality.

“The upside of successful fusion is nearly unlimited,” wrote Albert Wenger, a managing director of the venture capital firm Union Square Ventures, in a recent article for TechCrunch. “The clean energy generation market represents a trillion-dollar opportunity. An estimated 26 TW of primary energy capacity needs to be built globally from 2030 to 2050 to serve the rising global energy needs, according to Materials Research Society. Just 1 TW of capacity will generate $300 billion in revenue, and a 15% market share from 2030 to 2050 would yield more than $1 trillion in annual revenue.”

It’s not easy work trying to contain the power of a sun on earth, and companies are trying several approaches to keep their fusion reactions going.

Researchers have made technical advances involving each of the main techniques companies are attempting — whether that’s the magnetic fields used in a tokamak reactor, laser-initiated fusion reactors, or hybrid approaches that combine magnetic confinement or laser-initiated reactions with novel fuel sources or other approaches to accelerate the timeline for producing energy.

In Cambridge, Mass., Commonwealth Fusion Systems could generate more energy than it consumes by 2025. And, roughly 54 miles down the road from London, a company called First Light Fusion that spun out from research at the University of Oxford, claims it will demonstrate breakeven in 2024. And in an office park somewhere between Los Angeles and San Diego the startup TAE Technologies is planning the commercialization of their reactor in the next five years.

These are just some of the over two-dozen companies working on putting the power of the sun in a bottle. And they’re making incredible progress.

Model of a SPARC Tokamak reactor designed by Commonwealth Fusion Systems: Image Credit: Flickr/Commwonwealth Fusion Systems

Return of the Tokamak Earlier this month two events on different sides of the Atlantic Ocean showed just how far technologies focused on magnetic confinement fusion have advanced.

The idea for these reactors (called Tokamaks) was first conceived in Russia in the late 50s. Russian scientists theorized that they could use magnets to create the conditions necessary to create plasma and generate a nuclear reactor.

That’s what the multinational ITER project in France is based on. And just this month, ITER received the delivery of its massive magnet built by the American manufacturer, General Atomics. Powerful enough to lift an aircraft carrier, the ITER magnet is estimated to stand nearly 60 feet tall and nearly 14 feet wide when it’s fully assembled.

With the delivery and construction of the new magnet, ITER is about 75% complete and the team there is on track to flip the switch on its reactor by 2026.

Meanwhile, in one of the squat, unassuming two-story buildings that house the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Plasma and Fusion Center, another breakthrough in Tokamak tech recently occurred.

Working with the startup Commonwealth Fusion Systems, MIT scientists have managed to use a breakthrough in material science to allow smaller-sized magnets to do the same work that the huge ITER magnets are performing.

By reducing the size, the Boston-adjacent startup thinks it can reduce the cost and build more reactors more quickly than the decades-long ITER reactor took.

The company’s new high-temperature superconductor material, which looks like a ribbon of tape, can be folded over itself and create the same magnetic field of a device that’s 40 times bigger.

So the Commonwealth Fusion Systems tech uses a well-known design but scales everything down to about half the linear size and still achieves the same operational conditions because of its higher magnetic field.

Last year, scientists from the company and MIT published a series of papers that confirmed the viability of their approach — as long as the magnets they were building could work as advertised.

Now that MIT has proven that the magnets do, in fact, work, the company is off to the races.

“It’s a big moment,” says Bob Mumgaard, CEO of Commonwealth Fusion Systems, in a statement to MIT. “We now have a platform that is both scientifically very well-advanced, because of the decades of research on these machines, and also commercially very interesting. What it does is allow us to build devices faster, smaller, and at less cost,” he says of the successful magnet demonstration.

The National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

Lasers and railguns and fusion, Oh my! Even as the team at MIT was gearing up to test its new magnet design and ITER’s super-magnet was making its way across the Atlantic Ocean, another test of a different kind of fusion reactor was happening at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Northern California.

There, scientists concentrated a laser over the lengths of three football fields onto a target the size of one birdshot pellet to produce 10 quadrillion watts of fusion power for 100 trillionths of a second.

That result catapulted the research lab to a new height and proved that inertial confinement fusion is on the cusp of real results.

While the lab at the NIF is focused on better understanding nuclear weapons, the technology has commercial applications as well.

“This result is a historic step forward for inertial confinement fusion research, opening a fundamentally new regime for exploration and the advancement of our critical national security missions,” said LLNL Director Kim Budil, in a statement. “For me it demonstrates one of the most important roles of the national labs — our relentless commitment to tackling the biggest and most important scientific grand challenges and finding solutions where others might be dissuaded by the obstacles.”

That’s what one Stanford Professor and science advisor to the early stage startup Marvel Fusion also thinks. The early stage company is using a modified version of the NIF approach to create a fusion reaction.

Among the companies using inertial confinement approaches is Oxford’s First Light Fusion. Rather than shooting lasers at a target, the company is developing a massive rail gun to fire a tiny projectile into a target to create its nuclear reaction.

In May, the company announced that it had completed construction of a 22-meter-long, two-stage gas gun. It’s the kind of thing that’s used to replicate the impact of a meteor — or space debris on equipment used for the International Space Station.

Its terrestrial application compliments other research First Light is doing with electromagnetic pulsed power machines to accelerate its projectiles.

Both technologies are built on advances into new diagnostics, target improvements, and design changes enabled by leaps in computing power to model out the results of new potential sources of fuel for reactions and design specs.

“This significant advance was only made possible by the sustained support, dedication and hard work of a very large team over many decades,” said Mark Herrmann, LLNL’s deputy program director for Fundamental Weapons Physics. “This result builds on the work and successes of the entire team, including the people who pursued inertial confinement fusion from the earliest days of our Laboratory. They should also share in the excitement of this success.”

The coup for LLNL is pretty significant considering that less than a decade ago, the project was subjected to some very public scrutiny.

Still, no one has managed to achieve the goal of break-even fusion using these traditional approaches, which is why some companies are taking some elements from each of the established methods to see if new form-factors or containment fields may be able to yield better results.

An employee adjusts a component used for General Fusion’s magnetized target fusion test reactor. Image Credit: General Fusion

Magnets? Rail guns? Lasers? Try it all they say If the advances in magnetic confinement and inertial confinement are promising, that bodes well for General Fusion — the Canadian company that’s taking elements of both approaches for its magnetized target fusion reactor.

Based on a design that was first conceived in the 1960s, General Fusion is among the oldest and best funded of the startup companies tackling nuclear fusion. In June, the company announced that it would be building a Fusion Demonstration Facility in Culham, a small town nestled on a bend in the Thames River.

The demonstration plant will be 70% the size of a full-scale commercial fusion reactor and will fire once a day, rather than the once per second that its full scale commercial reactor hopes to achieve.'' General Fusion’s technology replaces super-powered magnets with electric pulses that inject self-stabilized plasma into a reactor core. The core is surrounded by a molten combination of lithium and lead that is compressed in miliseconds by huge pistons to create billions of atmospheres of pressure.

“We can make the best self-contained plasma in the world,” chief executive officer Christofer Mowry told the publication Science earlier this year.

The combination of those forces should create a fusion reaction, whose energy will be captured in the liquid lithium and lead and converted into heat energy used to power steam turbines.

General Fusion isn’t the only company rethinking the approaches and trying to combine technologies to get to market. Other startups are looking at lasers and incredible jolts of electricity to make their own Mr. Fusion machines.

General Fusion’s current optimism is matched only by another of the old guard of fusion technologies — TAE Technologies.

TAE Technologies (formerly known as Tri-Alpha Energy) has been developing its fusion technology for twenty years. In April, the company announced that it had it its own milestone on the road to generating a fusion reactor.

In a small office park halfway between San Diego and Los Angeles, the company has managed to hit 50 million degrees over several hundred test cycles for its experimental reactor, called “Norman” after the company’s co-founder Norman Rostoker.

TAE Technologies claims that it has been able to sustain plasma indefinitely in a reaction for the past six years. Now the company has proven that it can reach the temperatures required to make a fusion reaction.

“The Norman milestone gives us a high degree of confidence that our unique approach brings fusion within grasp technologically and, more important, economically,” Binderbauer told TechCrunch earlier this year. “As we shift out of the scientific validation phase into engineering commercial-scale solutions for both our fusion and power management technologies, TAE will become a significant contributor in modernizing the entire energy grid.”

Still other theoretical innovations are on the horizon.

Researchers from the University of Washington have developed a Z-Pinch reactor which uses a similar device to one that astronomers employ to recreate the plasma activity at the heart of stars.

Using that research, Zap Energy is hoping to make compact fusion-energy generator that could produce up to 200 megawatts of power in a space the size of a small camper van.

The Z-pinch device works by running a powerful electric current along a tube of accelerated plasma. The shock creates a magnetic field within the plasma that compresses the plasma together heating up the matter.

It’s technology that was first discovered in the 1950s, but has taken nearly sixty year to develop the tools to begin thinking about stabilizing plasma inside a Z-pinch, according to an article in Physics World.

Detail of the TAE Technologies “Norman” fusion reactor. Image Credit: TAE Technologies

But is it a bubble?

The longtime joke around fusion technology is that it’s an innovation that’s always a decade away (or thirty years, depending on who’s talking).

As the head of the Fusion Industry Association noted this year no company has, in fact, managed to achieve a reaction that produces more energy than it consumes.

For longtime industry observers like Eric Wesoff at Canary Media, that’s a red flag. As Wesoff wrote earlier this year:

There is no silver bullet to save humanity from climate change. Models like MIT’s En-ROADS show that we’re going to have to use every tool we have to face off against this existential threat. That includes fusion — provided that it’s economically deployable. While the technologies differ, the wildly aspirational language, unachievable and receding targets, and investor herd mentality in fusion are the same bad behavior seen in previous bubbles (the dot-com bubble, the optical switching bubble, the biofuel bubble, the thin-film solar bubble). In fact, it’s some of the same investors as in previous bubbles.

If that doesn’t set off red flags, you haven’t been paying attention. Fusion is scientifically feasible, but we’re billions of dollars in and no company or lab has come close to reaching energy breakeven.

Innovation drives progress, and we must explore new energy avenues like fusion, but we have to deploy our money and our human capital with common sense. If we’re putting tens of billions of dollars into chasing a fusion solution that won’t be producing grid-coupled energy for decades to come, we need to assess whether that money would be better spent on commercial solutions that can be deployed today or research that has a more immediate payback.

For many investors — including the ones who’ve put roughly $2 billion into fusion startups over the past year — past performance simply can’t be an indication of future results.

Clay Dumas, one of the managing directors at LowerCarbon Capital is a good case-in-point.

Dumas isn’t wrong. Fusion can enable lower-cost carbon capture and storage options and a host of new technologies that humanity probably hasn’t considered thanks to the limitations of current energy supply and capacity.

Even with a massive rollout of renewable power, there will be a need for additional technologies including, potentially, fusion and next-generation geothermal power generation to reach a fully decarbonized industrial society.

Rather than taking an either-or approach to energy, the better way would be to pursue as many viable options as possible. The advancements in the state of the art for fusion seem to be bringing what was once theoretical into that realm of possibility.

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