In nuclear fusion, a released neutron travels at roughly 10 million meters per second. This is several times faster than the speed of sound, the speed of radio waves, and the speed at which the sun transverses the sky. However, unlike the fast neutron, for decades, the actual development of nuclear fusion has progressed at a glacial pace.
With astronomical investments from the public and private sectors, that could change. A recent series of scientific breakthroughs advancing both the duration and power output possible from fusion reactions is also speeding up the process. If California-based TAE Technologies has anything to do with it, by this time next decade, you could be reading this story on a phone charged by nuclear fusion power.
After working toward fusion for almost the last 25 years, TAE says it’s on the path to commercialize clean fusion power by the early 2030s. The development comes as TAE, the world’s first private fusion energy company, receives a $17.4 million grant from California Competes, a competition by Governor Gavin Newsom's Office of Business and Economic Development. The grant builds on the $1.2 billion in private capital raised by TAE to date.
TAE’s most recent $250 million funding round included Chevron (which also invested in Zap Energy) and Google (which also invested in FootPrint Coalition fusion portfolio company, Commonwealth Fusion Systems).
According to the company, the grant will directly support job creation for their fusion development and in the company’s rapidly expanding power management business to accelerate their fusion pursuits while working toward the Golden State’s clean energy goals.
Unlike nuclear fission, which powers conventional nuclear plants, fusion produces no nuclear waste. Mimicking processes of the sun, fusion has the potential to be the fastest and most abundant way of delivering carbon-free energy to the grid. In fact, long considered an infinite source of energy, most investors believe fusion will be operational by the next decade. According to Forbes, industry insiders believe that by 2050, fusion plants could supply anywhere from 18% to 44% of the world’s energy.
Due to the increasing capital, ingenuity, and necessity in the fusion business, private fusion companies have skyrocketed over the years. In 1998 when TAE first launched, only two fusion projects existed: it and the global collaboration, ITER. Now, there are at least 23 fusion companies making reactions in the space. The catalyst, of course, is money.
The Fusion Industry Association reports that private fusion companies raised over $4.8 billion in funding to date, more than doubling the industry’s total funding last year. This is led by frontrunners in the industry: General Fusion, Commonwealth Fusion Systems, Helion, TAE Technologies, Zap Energy, General Atomics, and First Light.
On top of the atomic movement in the private sector, ITER, the 35-country publicly financed French fusion project hopes to deliver fusion power by 2045. Outside of the U.S. and France, China, Britain, and Russia are all working toward fusion development. China, in particular, is pouring $1 trillion into a singular ‘artificial sun’ reactor.
Back in California, TAE is constructing its sixth research reactor: Copernicus. In the machine, a linear gadget of cylinders, superheated plasma shoots from identical ends, runs through magnetic coils, and smashes together the center to create the stellar energy.
Just this summer, TAE reached the milestone of achieving temperatures greater than 75 million degrees Celsius with its current fusion reactor machine, nicknamed Norman. Now, with Copernicus, the company expects to reach between 100 and 150 million degrees Celsius. This, TAE says, is the machine expected to achieve the crucial fusion mid-decade commercialization milestone.