For years, science has proven difficult to master. But over the past year, nuclear fusion has come closer to reality.
Scientists are just a few years away from getting more energy from fusion reactions than the energy needed to create them, they said. Venture capitalists are pumping billions into companies, rushing to set up a fusion powerhouse by the early 2030s. The Biden administration, through the Cut Inflation Act and Department of Energy, creates tax credits and grant programs to help companies determine how to deploy this type of energy.
Still, challenges remain, nuclear scientists say. The US energy grid would need a major overhaul for fusion power plants to become mainstream. The price of providing fusion power is still too high to be feasible.
“We’re in a very exciting place,” said Dennis G. Whyte, director of MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center. “But we also have to be realistic in the sense that it’s still very difficult.”
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The quest for nuclear fusion technology began around the 1950s. Soviet scientists designed a machine called a tokamak – a doughnut-shaped device that uses magnetic fields to confine plasma and heat it to the shockingly high temperatures needed to hydrogen nuclei smash together.
In the years that followed, several countries decided that nuclear fusion power would be a boon to the world, but they had to work together to make it a reality. In the 1970s, European countries began working on a merger experiment, called the Joint European Torus. In the 1980s, the United States and the Soviet Union decided to cooperate in harnessing fusion energy for peaceful purposes, creating an international collaboration called the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor.
Together, the countries have made advances in fusion science, Whyte said, and discovered the fundamentals of how to heat and maintain plasma at temperatures near 150 million degrees Celsius (300 million degrees Fahrenheit) to support fusion reactions. But over the past two decades, the pace of progress on these international projects has slowed, he added, noting that they are complex, multinational efforts.
As the search for solutions to climate change has become more pressing, more than a dozen private sector companies have stepped in, many of which are trying to bring a fusion power plant to market by the 2030s. a range of approaches, Whyte said, some using magnetic fields to achieve plasma hot and stable enough to support fusion reactions, while others implode tiny pellets of hydrogen atoms to create reactions of merger.
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A handful of these companies have made promising achievements over the past few years, which have allowed them to raise unprecedented levels of cash.
Commonwealth Fusion Systems, an MIT spin-off, raised $1.8 billion in December. It came nearly three months after he tested a magnet for his tokamak machine that will allow him to achieve ‘net energy’, meaning the machine will be able to produce more fusion energy than it needs. enough to maintain the reactions.
With the money, the company is building a facility in Devens, Massachusetts, to build and house a full-size model of the machine, called SPARC, which should be fully operational by 2025. If that model can achieve net energy , the company plans to build a fusion power plant by the early 2030s, which could plug into the power grid and start delivering electricity to homes.
Bob Mumgaard, the company’s chief executive, said that’s when government collaboration will really come in handy. His company will likely need financial assistance from the Department of Energy’s loan program office to finance its power plant, Mumgaard says. The office has secured funding from the Cut Inflation Act and has about $40 billion in loans to help fund energy projects that are have a proven track record, but may struggle to raise funds from banks.
“Once the technology has demonstrated its effectiveness,” Mumgaard said, “it’s less risky, and the next buyer of that technology could get a commercial loan.”
Phil Larochelle, a partner at venture capital firm Breakthrough Energy Ventures, said private money was flowing into fusion at such high levels because advances in science, such as better magnets, made nuclear fusion cheap. more likely.
Going forward, Larochelle noted that bringing nuclear fusion to market will likely require formal cost-sharing programs with the government, which he says could be similar to how NASA partners with SpaceX for innovation in space travel.
“In the United States and the United Kingdom now there are sort of new government programs and support to try to achieve a [fusion] pilot,” he said. “It’s a good form of risk sharing between public and private [sectors].”
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Despite growing government collaboration, Whyte said, some challenges remain.
The effects of climate change are increasingly irreversible and time is running out, he said, making fusion power a critical need. Businesses will need to understand how to deploy the technology at scale. Doing it cheaply is most important, he said. “What worries me is that we will come to a system where we cannot make it economically attractive quickly enough,” he added.
Additionally, to create a power grid through which fusion technology delivers large amounts of energy, a lot of things have to happen. Universities need to produce scientists better able to work on fusion technology. Fusion energy companies need to build devices that create more energy than they consume. Science and crafting materials need to be built hard if Power Plants are to scale.
“Can we get there? asked Whyte. “I think we can if we do it together in the right way. But there is no guarantee of that.