There is a running joke in the scientific community that nuclear fusion is perpetually thirty years away from being viable. Due to the input requirement and technical complexity, a complete solution to this challenge has eluded researchers since its theoretical conception in the early 1930s. However, in recording the highest-ever sustained reading from a fusion reactor on February 9th, the Joint European Torus (JET) facility in Oxfordshire has renewed the belief that we are closer than ever before to a fusion-powered world.
In the broadest possible strokes, nuclear fusion begins with the formation of hydrogen plasma through intense heat and pressure. During this process, the positively-charged nuclei of the hydrogen particles overcome their mutual repulsion to form unstable helium particles, triggering beta decay that forms a stable helium product. This process releases a substantial amount of thermal energy that is in turn used to heat water into steam; this rotates the turbines that power the electric generators.
In the broadest possible strokes, nuclear fusion begins with the formation of hydrogen plasma through intense heat and pressure.
This process is based on the same forces that have kept stars ignited for billions of years. Deep inside the core of a star, immense gravitational force generates the pressure necessary for the fusion process to occur. Here on Earth, the same magnitude of pressure is unattainable, but we can compensate with even higher temperatures. Generators have internal temperatures in excess of 150 million degrees Celsius and contain the resulting plasma using either powerful magnetic fields or lasers. The aforementioned JET facility that achieved the most recent breakthrough uses the magnetic confinement method through a device called a “tokamak,” which resembles a giant metal donut.
The primary roadblock over the history of fusion reactor experimentation is one of efficiency: the amount of power generated has never even come close to exceeding the amount expended. The closest scientists have come to breaking even was in 1997, when the same tokamak machine produced 21.7 megajoules in a four-second, continuous pulse. On February 9th, JET’s tokamak more than doubled that historical figure, producing 59 megajoules over 5 seconds. While this figure averages out to only 11 megawatts of power (just enough to boil half-a-dozen kettles of water), it is a huge incremental step that promises even more under the assumption of scalability.
The highly anticipated sequel to this experiment is the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), which is currently under construction in Provence, France. The reactor at ITER is of the same ilk as its predecessor at JET, but ten times the size and more sophisticated in its use of superconducting magnets, in lieu of copper ones. The new facility is set to begin testing in 2025 and is earmarked to be the next major milestone on the path towards commercially available fusion energy.
The rush towards net-energy fusion technology is not limited to government players and academic research bodies. In the private sector, the ESG movement will be a major tailwind for investment, as investors and consumers alike disproportionately reward companies that demonstrate strong corporate responsibility. A clear indicator of these incentives materialized at the 2021COP26 conference, as the aggregate value of firms committed to attaining a net-zero economy reached $130 trillion. The realignment of corporate profit incentives with broader environmental interests means market-led initiatives will meaningfully supplement their public sector counterparts in achieving global decarbonization goals. Since nuclear fusion would be the ideal tool to achieve these ends, funding will not be in short supply.
In the private sector, the ESG movement will be a major tailwind for investment, as investors and consumers alike disproportionately reward companies that demonstrate strong corporate responsibility.
Last December, fusion energy startups were buoyed by a wave of private capital placements with homegrown Canadian firm General Fusion closing a $130 million round in the same week that Commonwealth Fusion Systems LLC raised $1.8 billion from a consortium of prolific backers, including Bill Gates. A healthy pool of continuous financing will be crucial in order to overcome the enormous feasibility barrier and to facilitate a competitive development process that ensures the technology is both cost-effective and accessible.
The notion of constructing a synthetic star to power our cities seems celestial in its assumptions, yet the technology would have massive benefits. Currently, nuclear fission accounts for roughly 10% of global energy generation. However, the fission process — which relies on the energy released by splitting nuclei — produces harmful by-products, is prone to meltdown, and runs on less abundant substances such as Uranium and Plutonium.
Conversely, the input materials (hydrogen) for fusion reactions are readily available and, while the commonly used hydrogen isotope Tritium is moderately radioactive, it is not toxic nor nearly as long-lived as fission byproducts. Furthermore, a fusion power plant does not pose the same “meltdown risk” that has tarnished the public reputation of nuclear fission. This is because the fission process contains an unstable chain reaction, while fusion reactors require active external containment to proceed. Therefore, any interruption of the tokamak would result in the plasma cooling, and the fusion harmlessly ending.
Furthermore, a fusion power plant does not pose the same “meltdown risk” that has tarnished the public reputation of nuclear fission.
Furthermore, while certain green energy projects have hidden environmental footprints, fusion energy would have no direct impact on greenhouse gas emissions. Another selling point is the raw efficiency superiority. According to the UK Atomic Energy Authority, one kilogram of fusion fuel would generate an amount of energy equivalent to the burning of 10 million kilograms of fossil fuels. To put this into perspective, the average Canadian household could satisfy its power needs for an entire year using a fuel pellet capable of fitting into one’s pocket.
At the end of the day, the hard-fought accomplishment at JET is only one brick in the greater nuclear fusion road that is still several decades away from completion. Nonetheless, the limitless upside of ubiquitous clean energy makes every development monumental. Nuclear fusion is truly the holy grail of energy. Now, it is up to us to forge a path to obtain it.