Our people are facing a major challenge to provide sustainable, safe, and affordable energy while trying to reduce carbon dioxide emissions to zero by around 2050.
Until now, the development of fusion energy, which can tick all these boxes, has been supported by the government. However, something is changing.
Business investment in global business has doubled in one year – from US $ 2.1 billion in 2021 to US $ 4.7 billion in 2022, according to research from the Fusion Industry Association.
So, what is driving the recent change? There is so much to enjoy.
Before we delve into that, let’s take a quick detour to recap what fusion energy is.
Fusion works in a similar way to our Sun, by combining two heavy hydrogen atoms under high heat and pressure to release a large amount of energy.
It is different from the process of fission used by nuclear power, in which atoms split to release more energy.
The development of nuclear fusion on a large scale could create a safe, clean, sustainable energy source.
Our Sun creates a fusion between its core and plasma of particles at a temperature of about 15 million degrees Celsius. Down on Earth, we’re looking for millions of degrees Celsius, because we don’t have enough of the Sun to pressurize the oil.
Scientists and engineers have developed a number of designs for how to achieve this, but most fusion reactors use magnetic fields to “bottle” and seal off the hot water.
In general, the biggest challenge we have to overcome on our way to commercial fusion power is providing an environment that can host the high-energy plasma needed to create a self-sustaining fusion reaction, producing more energy than is needed to start it.
Public and private joining
Fusion development has been progressing since the 1950s. Much of that was driven by government funding for basic science.
Now, a growing number of fusion companies around the world are moving towards the power of commercial fusion. The change in the attitude of the government has been very important for this.
The US and UK governments are encouraging public-private partnerships to implement their research programs.
For example, the White House recently announced that it will create a “bold vision for the age of commerce”.
In the United Kingdom, the government has invested in a program that aims to connect the country’s electricity generation system.
Technology has advanced, too
In addition to taking advantage of both the public and private sector, the technologies we need for integrated plants are coming quickly.
In 2021, scientists at MIT and Commonwealth Fusion Systems developed a magnet that would allow them to create a fusion device called SPARC “smaller, cheaper, and faster”.
In recent years, several experiments in fusion have also reached the critical threshold of maintaining plasma temperatures of 100 million degrees or more.
These include China’s EAST experiment, the Korean KSTAR experiment, and the UK company Tokamak Energy.
These phenomena show an incredible ability to match what is found inside our Sun and keep super-hot plasma trapped long enough to encourage fusion to occur.
In February, the Joint European Torus – the world’s most powerful tokamak – announced the world’s most powerful nuclear reactor.
And the next combined-energy experiment to demonstrate energy efficiency, ITER, is under construction in France and is now about 80 percent complete.
Magnets aren’t the only method of communication, either. In November 2021, the National Ignition Facility at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California made a major breakthrough in confinement.
By focusing about 200 high-powered lasers to close and compress a target the size of a pencil eraser, they created a tiny “hot spot” combination that produces a combination of energy in a short amount of time.
In Australia, a company called HB11 is developing proton-boron fusion technology using high-powered lasers and magnetic fields.
Fusion and complementarity can go hand in hand
It is important that investment in fusion is not at the expense of alternative energy and the transition away from fossil fuels.
We can expand our adoption of renewable energy technologies such as solar, wind, and pumped hydro as we develop next-generation power generation systems.
This specific approach was recently outlined by the United States in the Net-Zero Game Changers Initiative. In this plan, operating costs are monitored and a process is developed to improve emissions as quickly as possible in accordance with the commercial development of fusion.
History shows us that amazing advances in science and engineering are possible when we work together with the right tools – the development of the COVID-19 vaccine is one recent example.
It is clear that many scientists, engineers, and now governments and ordinary investors (as well as fashion designers) have decided that fusion power is a solution worth pursuing, not a dream. Right now, it’s the best shot we’ve had at making fusion power possible.
Nathan Garland, Lecturer in Applied Mathematics and Physics, Griffith University and Matthew Hole, Senior Research Fellow, Mathematical Sciences Institute, Australian National University
This article is reprinted from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the first article.