Right now, most energy in the United States still comes from fossil fuels, and despite rampant efforts over the last decade to tip the scales, only just over a fifth comes from renewables — still that’s a big jump from just under 13% in 2017. Now, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is putting in the work, or rather the dollars, to tip the scales even further… toward nuclear fusion.
As U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm puts it “We have generated energy by drawing power from the sun above us. Fusion offers the potential to create the power of the sun right here on Earth.”
And with $46 million awarded to eight nuclear fusion companies, the DOE believes that power is no longer lightyears away.
There are at least 30 nuclear fusion companies scattered across the world trying to take that stellar phenomenon and replicate it in reactors to power homes, buildings, data centers, grids, and our entire planet. Of that 30, several are in the U.S. and one is a FootPrint Coalition-backed venture: Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS).
Massachusetts Institute of Technology-spin out, CFS, is among eight companies tapped by the DOE to deliver viable fusion pilot plants to the States, and with the $46 million divvied up among them, the Energy Department’s Milestone-Based Fusion Development Program hopes to help develop a pilot-scale demonstration of fusion within a short decade and make the technology that “will always be 50 years away” a viable source of emissions-free energy in the near future.
With the kickstarted program, “The Biden-Harris Administration is committed to partnering with innovative researchers and companies across the country to take fusion energy past the lab and toward the grid,” Granholm said.
In a nutshell, fusion occurs when the nuclei of two light atoms such as hydrogen, are heated to unimaginable temperatures as high as 100 degrees Celcius, and fuse into one heavy nucleus, releasing vast amounts of energy.
For decades, scientists have been working toward a goal that allows fusion to power the world without the planet-warming emissions of fossil fuels or the radioactive byproduct of its cousin, nuclear fission.
These mark the very first selections for the program, which was established and authorized by the Energy Act of 2020 and the Bipartisan CHIPS and Science Act. The program funds these companies for the first 18 months, however, projects may last up to five years, with future funding totaling $415 million. Nevertheless, these millions of dollars are contingent on congressional approval as well as these companies achieving the milestones they set out to clear.
And they believe they can do it.
“Participating companies only get paid if they deliver results and the public program verifies the science is sound, sending a powerful signal for fundamental progress in this important endeavor,” Bob Mumgaard, CFS CEO and co-founder said in a statement.
Clearly, the federal government believes they will deliver.
Just a little over a year ago, the Biden administration laid out its ambitions in the March 2022 White House summit on Developing a Bold Decadal Vision for Commercial Fusion Energy. Of those ambitions, fusion plays a sizable role in the plan to help the U.S. reach a net-zero economy by 2050.
As the DOE put it in its press release, “Within five to 10 years, the eight awardees will resolve scientific and technological challenges to create designs for a fusion pilot plant that will help bring fusion to both technical and commercial viability.”
According to Mumgaard, “There is a growing global race for commercial fusion energy and this DOE program will serve as a clear, data-driven, and transparent way to measure private sector progress and ensure that the U.S. is playing a leading role.”
These companies range in approaches and where they are based across the country.
Some are creating reactors that use superconducting magnets, like Cambridge-based CFS and the University of Wisconsin, Madison-spin out Realta; others are focusing on more modular, community-size reactors like Washington-based Zap. There’s Madison’s Type One which is using elements like deuterium and lithium to feel reactors and there’s Redwood City, California’s Xcimer, which says they are creating “the world’s highest-energy laser system.”
The U.S. government isn’t the only one pushing for fusion and putting money where their clean energy commitments are.
The once nebulous technology has recently gotten meteors of funding from tech giants like Microsoft, venture capitalists like Khosla Ventures which recently piled onto Realta’s DOE funding, and entities around the world, like those which recently funded Germany’s Proxima, the first fusion company to spin out of Germany’s revered Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics and reportedly, home of “the world’s most advanced existing stellarator,” a twisty magnetic technology invented at Princeton and used by the university-spin out Princeton Stellerators, as well as Type One Energy.
Regardless of the approach, Mumgaard believes this combined effort will help accelerate the path toward commercialization. The momentum around the world could even further expedite efforts. The program “leverages the strengths of the private and public sectors and encourages collaboration to accelerate progress,” he said.
“We hope this milestone program continues to grow in ambition and funding, which will be incredibly important as we work to bring this fundamentally new clean technology to the world.”