For the past several decades, nuclear fusion has been in a research and development limbo as scientists search for ways to create the carbon-neutral energy source without an environmental impact. But over the past year, breakthroughs have occurred in fusion energy in tandem with surging funding, research, and advocacy.
From investments tucked into the Inflation Reduction Act, the CHIPS and Science Act, and other nuclear-specific expenditures, 2022 has been the year the White House bets on fusion. The Department of Energy’s latest initiative – a $50 million milestone-based fusion development program – is aiming to bring fusion atomically closer to commercialization.
The federal government has gravitated toward fusion for years, investing in fusion science research since the 1950s. Today it invests about $700 million per year into fusion research, but that money has mostly gone toward national labs and universities, and since the 1980s, toward the primary international research project in France, ITER. Remarkably, DOE’s program marks the first time substantial amounts of federal money have gone to for-profit companies.
Despite the historical backing of fusion research, putting this amount of money into the private sector is unparalleled, and hallmarks the building momentum behind what many call the “holy grail” of clean energy. It’s the next step in fusion funding, focusing on commercially developing and deploying what decades of research has been working toward.
Fusion earned the “holy grail” title because, if research proves correct, it could offer seemingly unlimited power. Releasing no greenhouse gasses or generating long-term radioactive nuclear waste (like its cousin nuclear fission), fusion is among the most environmentally friendly sources of energy on the planet.
According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, if scaled to the need of a power station, fusion devices will be capable of producing 500 megawatts of fusion power.
The agency bases this number on ITER. Equal to a standard coal plant, nuclear fusion has the potential to replace the present coal reliance in the U.S. by the second half of the century.
Fusion is the process of the Sun and the stars. When swirls of hydrogen and helium gas condense into celestial clouds, creating a gravitational force at the star’s core, it brings matter closer and closer and closer together until nuclei coalesce to produce the light, energy, and heat known only to the diamonds in the sky.
But with the DOE’s initiative, fusion will be closer to reality down on Earth.
The DOE’s $50 million program was first authorized by the Energy Act of 2020, and aims to support for-profit companies who may team with national laboratories, universities, and others in order to achieve milestones, and bring fusion closer to “technical and commercial viability.”
Venture capital firms (including our own FootPrint Coalition Ventures) have poured billions into fusion energy technology startups. Commonwealth Fusion Systems (a FootPrint Coalition portfolio company), Helion Energy, Avalanche Energy, Zap Energy are just a few of the next generation energy developers tackling the problem of creating power through fusion.
The end goal is the first successful design of a fusion pilot plant (FPP). The program also requires awardees to implement a community benefits plan in support of the Department’s equity and justice priorities.
The program will distribute the funding over the next 18 months, but Congress has authorized spending as much as $415 million in future budgets.
“Fusion holds the promise of being an on-demand, safe, abundant source of carbon-free primary energy and electricity, with the potential to transform the way we generate and use energy,” David Turk, the Department of Energy (DOE) Deputy Secretary said.
Turk announced the program in his opening remarks at a fusion showcase event at the Global Clean Energy Action Forum in Pittsburgh.
According to the forum chair’s summary, the current economic and investment opportunity of nuclear power will be “worth at least $23 trillion by the end of this decade,” pointing to commitments originally made by countries under the Paris Agreement to achieve global net zero emissions by mid-century.