Space is exciting. The idea of finding life elsewhere in the solar system or visiting another planet captures the imagination. Private companies like SpaceX getting involved to carry cargo and now crew to the International Space Station are freeing up NASA scientists to focus on more ambitious goals. The sense of exploration, the grand challenge, inspires us to achieve the incredible.
But the grand challenge of our generation is not space. It’s not getting to Mars, though that is exciting and will undoubtedly lead to numerous technological advances. Our new space race is a planetary one—our race to reliable, sustainable energy. And the energy of the stars—fusion—is our great hope.
Fusion safely produces energy with no greenhouse gases and no long-lived radioactive waste. The waste product of fusion is helium, formed when particles of hydrogen join together. And, crucially, we have control over whether it is on or off, meaning that fusion is a firm, reliable energy resource capable of complementing variable renewables. More details of how fusion powers the sun and how scientists replicate the process on Earth are in a previous piece I wrote for Forbes.
Incidentally, fusion is also a great hope for space propulsion if we want to reduce travel times to Mars or explore further in the solar system. NASA recently released news about their work on lattice confinement fusion for space travel and there are various fusion companies working on propulsion, such as Princeton Satellite Systems, Helicity Space and Pulsar Fusion.
A coming reality, not Sci-Fi
Progress in fusion has been accelerating over the past decade as the number of private fusion companies has increased, along with the amount of investment going into private fusion. We estimate that more than $1.5 billion has been invested in private fusion energy start-ups. Key backers include Jeff Bezos, Peter Thiel and Bill Gates (Bill Gates named fusion as one of his 10 Breakthrough Technologies 2019). But it’s the rising interest from strategic investors such as Legal & General and energy companies like Equinor, Eni and Chevron that is really beginning to show the world that fusion is coming. The new space race is on.
The big challenge now is: how do governments around the world foster the growing industry? Governments know that fusion is a technology that has potential for national economic benefit and global environmental benefit—big money and big societal impact. So they are beginning to step up and address fusion energy as a coming reality, not Sci-Fi, just as they did with space in the 1960s.
In the last few weeks there have been a number of government fusion-related activities in the United States.
Fusion energy in the Clean Economy Jobs and Innovation Act
On 24th September the U.S. House of Representatives voted to approve a program for fusion energy research and commercialization as part of H.R. 4447, the Clean Economy Jobs and Innovation Act. The amendment on Fusion Energy Research included a milestone-based cost-share program for private fusion modeled on the NASA COTS program that launched the commercial space industry.
“Approval of these fusion provisions by the House of Representatives, especially the public-private partnership, signals that support for the commercial fusion energy industry is increasing in the U.S. Congress,” said Tim Peckinpaugh, Partner at K&L Gates LLP specialising in energy, environmental, and natural resource policy issues.
US government support for a fusion pilot plant
That same week, the United States National Academy of Sciences held a consultation with private fusion companies as part of a study to determine how best to support the development of a fusion pilot plant (a machine that will demonstrate the production of electricity by fusion). The panel wanted to hear from manufacturers and industry about their plans for a fusion test plant. The consultation process is an exciting opportunity for private-company thinking to be incorporated into the government program. It’s an opportunity for government to partner with industry to drive the technology towards commercialisation fast—on a timescale soon enough to matter for climate change.
Developing a regulatory framework
Then, on 6thOctober the Department of Energy, Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Fusion Industry Association co-hosted a public forum to discuss how fusion should be regulated for commercial deployment. This is an important step to give greater certainty to investors and the companies building pilot plants.
A crucial decade as we move towards fusion commercialization
Several fusion companies have credible development plans. Commonwealth Fusion Systems just last week published a series of papers in the Journal of Plasma Physics outlining the physics behind their strategy. The development plans of other established companies such as General Fusion and Tokamak Energy are also available online, and increasing numbers of private fusion companies publish their science in peer reviewed journals. However, these fusion companies are commercially-focused with a good understanding of fusion’s potential place in the global energy market.
This decade will be crucial in demonstrating key steps to ultimately lead to power-plant roll-out in the 2030s. Governments that want a healthy fusion industry need to acknowledge that fusion could go faster and instigate directives to support this. They have a role to play in researching enabling technologies, ensuring regulatory certainty and financially supporting industry through partnerships.
What fusion doesn’t need now is new government-designed and built pilot plants that are big, slow and expensive. If we want to see fusion beginning to contribute to decarbonisation in the 2030s we need to put faith in the private fusion sector and enable public and private fusion partners to work together to win the new space race of our generation—a race to reliable, sustainable energy—for everyone.