Private investment fuels nuclear fusion in the US

Private investment fuels nuclear fusion in the US

Driven by major technological advances and huge private investment, the United States’ nuclear fusion sector could produce electricity within ten years, industry players say.

That process, which powers the Sun, sees two atomic nuclei fuse — and release vast amounts of energy. But private companies on Earth are also hoping decades of research might finally culminate in grid-connected fusion power plants in the 2030s.

The buzz comes amid an influx of cash: in two years, the private sector has more than doubled its investment, reaching a total of $5.9 billion by the end of 2023, compared to just $271 million from the public sector.
Together, they form helium nuclei and release neutrons, which bombard the walls of the reactor and increase its temperature.

This heat is then converted into electricity, through the steam produced when the 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 start-ups have chosen the magnetic confinement technology used in tokamaks, the most famous reactor model. This differs from the inertial confinement method chosen by LLNL, which uses a laser.

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

Such methods “offer advantages in achieving commercialization,” a Helion spokesman said.

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

But a recently published study by researchers at MIT and startup Commonwealth Fusion Systems has shown that fusion is possible with magnets that are much smaller than previously thought.

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

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

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

Around two-thirds of start-ups from various countries, surveyed by the Federation of Combined Industries (FIA), see their first fusion power plant connected to the power grid by 2035 at the latest.

Last year, Helion Energy, a fusion power startup in Washington state, also signed a deal with Microsoft for 50 megawatts (MW) of capacity to operate by 2029.

“Remarkable things have happened in the last few years,” said Pravesh Patel, of the startup Focus Energy, at the CERAWeek energy conference.

“It was like the first time the Wright brothers took off from the ground,” he said, referring to the first flight of a powered plane in 1903. “People could see that it was possible. It was no longer a theory.”

Important recent achievements include an experiment by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) in California in December 2022, where more energy was released from fusion than was used to produce it.

Fusion consists of assembling two atomic nuclei derived from hydrogen, usually deuterium and tritium, in a confined enclosure, at temperatures exceeding 100 million degrees Celsius.

With $2 billion in private capital, Commonwealth is by far the most funded company in the sector. It plans to activate its demonstration reactor, SPARC, next year, then open its first power plant in the early 2030s.

Much uncertainty remains, but if Commonwealth and Helion succeed, it would allow the United States to become the first country to produce commercial electricity through fusion, a move no other country is targeting before 2035.

“The Commonwealth is a great example of what you can do, and how fast you can go, when you have these commercial incentives in the private sector as opposed to in the public sector,” Patel said.

“The US has a very good track record on this,” Whyte said, noting the ability of university labs to translate research into products — often more smoothly than labs in other countries — as well as a strong venture capital sector to allow startups to take off. from the ground.

From the semiconductor revolution to the Internet revolution, “the US has won this kind of race,” Whyte said.

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