One of my favorite bar signs is the one that promises “Free beer tomorrow.” That’s how I’ve always thought of nuclear fusion—a (theoretically) cheap, pollution-free and inexhaustible energy source, the promise of which has pretty much been a decade away ever since the technology was first tested 70 years ago.
When “nuclear energy” is discussed, it’s almost always in reference to nuclear fission, which generates energy by splitting atoms—and is the source of power for nuclear weapons and all of the nuclear generators in operation today.
Two positively charged nuclei combine to create nuclear fusion. It’s the same kind of reaction that powers our sun—sparked by the star’s massive size, heat and gravitational fields. It is necessary to heat gasses at more than 100,000,000 degrees Celsius, and hold them with powerful magnets or lasers in order to recreate the reaction. This heat and compression defeats all forces which would keep positively charged nuclei separated. They fuse together. The fusion creates energy and, if it continues, generates even more energy.
Fusion produces no greenhouse gases, little waste and no danger of out-of control meltdowns such as Chernobyl. It is easy to find and cheaply produced from hydrogen and helium.
That’s the theory.
Practically, nobody really knows. It takes a lot of energy and heat to force two nuclei into merging. In the few instances that it has been successful, however, the energy generated has often been lower than what was needed to initiate and sustain the fusion reaction. To generate energy, the reaction needs to self-perpetuating. For the scientists pursuing the atomic equivalent of tomorrow’s free beer, launching a self-sustaining fusion reaction is still tantalizingly out of reach.
It is coming closer.
In recent months, there have been many important breakthroughs. These include 3D printing (which is required to make hollow-cavity equipment), supercomputing (to calculate energy and mass), and material science (super thin and powerful magnetic tape). In August, scientists at California’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory set a record for nuclear fusion energy production, even if the blast lasted a fraction of a second. The climate crisis is causing investor concern and the urgency has increased investment in green alternative energy sources. Helion Energy, a fusion startup announced on Nov. 5 that it raised $500 million in the most recent round of fundraising. This was the highest amount ever for private fusion firms. By 2024, the company will have net positive electricity generation. “Modern advancements in electronics enable us to do fusion decades sooner than previously imagined,” David Kirtley, the CEO and founder of Helion Energy said in an email.
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According to the 2021 Global Fusion Industry survey, which was jointly published by the U.K. Atomic Energy Agency (UK Atomic Energy Agency) and the Fusion Industry Association, 35 start-ups that focus on fusion have received nearly $2 billion in private investment.
“Fusion was always 10 years to forever away. It was about science; it was about research,” says Jane Hotchkiss, a 30-year veteran of the renewable energy industry, who now heads up Energy for the Common Good, an NGO that advocates for the development and use of fusion technology as a clean energy solution. “Now that we have a new generation of commercially focused physicists and engineers racing to put it into practical use, there is hope for the future.”
Fusion power plants are more flexible than solar or wind power. They can operate continuously and do not require battery backup or electrical grid adjustments to adjust for fluctuations in power supply. It is possible to use the enormous power produced for green hydrogen production, which can be an emissions-free, dense fuel, that will help reduce carbon footprints in transport and shipping.
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Problem is that there’s a lot of distance between the two. couldWhat it does, and how to get it now doing—This is mostly a promise about tomorrow.
Hotchkiss says that the technological difficulties of creating what appears to be a sun inside a bottle require significant investment beyond what venture capitalists will commit. “Fusion is the planet’s moon shot to climate change solutions. We have to stop treating it like a scientific research project and treat it like a future commercial product.” That means government buy-in as well.
It is beginning to happen. The U.K. has invested $250 million already in a fusion reactor it hopes will generate power by 2040. ITER is a multi-national fusion project worth $25 billion in France that will begin operation in 2025. The U.N. Climate Conference in Glasgow, earlier this month, served as an occasion for fusion to come out: the technology was given center stage during a roundtable discussion on the final day. A fusion exhibit at Glasgow Science Center allowed non-delegates to find more information.
Attention couldn’t be coming soon enough, says Hotchkiss. The International Energy Agency estimates that the amount of renewable energy available in 2022 will only be enough to supply half the world’s demand. Rest of the demand will need to be fulfilled by fossil fuels. “It’s time to take fusion seriously. It offers too many solutions for what is wrong with energy today.” That free beer is meeting its due date.