canada africa partner reservation Private investment fuels a race for nuclear fusion energy in the US

Private investment fuels a race for nuclear fusion energy in the US

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WASHINGTON:

Spurred by major technological advances and massive private investment, the United States’ nuclear fusion sector could be producing electricity within a decade, industry players say.

This process, which powers the sun, involves two atomic nuclei coming together and releasing enormous amounts of energy. But private companies on Earth also hope that decades of research could eventually culminate in connecting fusion power plants to the electricity grid in the 2030s.

The excitement comes amid an influx of cash: In two years, the private sector has more than doubled its investments, reaching a total of $5.9 billion by the end of 2023, compared to just $271 million from the public sector.

Read: US envoy Kerry launches international nuclear fusion plan at COP28

Part of the hype stems from what experts see as an impending tipping point, where theoretical science will soon become reality.

“It’s not just about doing science, it’s actually about delivering products,” says Dennis Whyte of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

About two-thirds of start-ups from different countries surveyed by the Fusion Industry Association (FIA) see the first fusion power plant being connected to the electricity grid by 2035 at the latest.

Last year, Washington State-based fusion energy startup Helion Energy even signed an agreement with Microsoft for 50 megawatts (MW) of capacity to be operational by 2029.

“Remarkable things have happened in recent years,” said Pravesh Patel of the start-up Focused Energy at the CERAWeek energy conference.

“It’s like the first time the Wright brothers took off the ground,” he said, referring to the very first powered airplane flight in 1903. “People can see that it’s possible. It’s no longer theoretical.”

Major recent milestones include an experiment at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) in California in December 2022, which released more energy from the fusion than was used to produce it.

Fusion consists of joining two atomic nuclei derived from hydrogen, usually deuterium and tritium, in a confined space, at a heat of more than 100 million degrees Celsius.

Together they form a helium core and release neutrons, which bombard the reactor walls and raise their temperature.

This heat is then converted into electricity via steam that is created when water comes into contact with the outside of the reactor.

Fusion has the advantage of being emission-free. It also produces less waste than its fission cousin and cannot cause a radiation disaster.

Most startups have opted for the magnetic confinement technology used in the tokamak, the best-known reactor model. This differs from the inertial confinement method chosen by LLNL, which uses lasers.

Helion, on the other hand, recovers energy directly from the reactor, without using steam, and the process produces fewer neutrons, reducing projections on the walls and their erosion.

Such methods “provide an advantage in achieving commercialization,” a Helion spokesperson said.

Until recently, the economic viability of nuclear fusion seemed uncertain, because magnetic confinement required the manufacture of giant magnets.

But recently published studies by researchers at MIT and start-up Commonwealth Fusion Systems have shown that fusion is possible with much smaller magnets than originally thought.

“Overnight, the cost per watt has been divided by 40,” Whyte told MIT News. “Now fusion has the opportunity” to become a reality in energy supply, he said.

With $2 billion in private capital, Commonwealth is by far the company that has raised the most money in the sector. The country plans to activate its demonstration reactor SPARC next year and open its first power plant in early 2030.

Many uncertainties remain, but if Commonwealth and Helion are successful, the United States could become the first country to produce commercial electricity through fusion, a step that no other country is aiming for before 2035 at best.

“The Commonwealth is a great example of what you can do, and how fast you can go, when you have this commercial incentive in the private sector versus in the public sector,” Patel said.

“The US has a particularly strong track record in this area,” Whyte said, noting that university labs can translate research into products – often more smoothly than labs in other countries – and that there is also a strong venture capital sector to support research make it possible. start-ups get off the ground.

From the semiconductor revolution to the Internet, “the US has won these kinds of races,” Whyte said.