For decades, research scientists have been drawn to the siren song of nuclear fusion – but its promise of offering limitless supplies of energy at very low cost with minimal pollution has remained elusive after decades of intensive government-funded research.
Despite the slow progress, it remains a compelling proposition.
If we could re-create the way the sun produces energy, e.g. by fusing two different lightweight atomic elements, we could satisfy all our energy needs without the use of fossil fuels.
The sun, of course, relies on immense gravitational forces to squeeze atomic elements together to release energy — but this stupendous amount of gravitational force is not available to us on Earth.
Instead, mainstream government-funded research projects here in the USA, at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), and Europe’s Joint European Torus (JET) facility in the UK rely instead upon heating hot plasma gases, accelerating them round and round inside a torus (donut) shaped tunnel.
The idea is to squeeze the plasma gas under pressure until it reaches temperatures hotter than the interior of the sun, which will cause the atoms to fuse to release immense amounts of energy.
A year ago, the world was excited when the National Ignition Facility (NIF) at LLNL produced a breakeven amount of energy in their experimental nuclear fusion lab.
This was a significant milestone: for the first time, the superheated plasma racing in circles inside the torus enclosure created more energy, 3.15 megajoules (MJ) – exceeding the input amount of 2.05 MJ required to operate the massive lasers and electric magnets used to accelerate and heat the plasma gas.
(The net amount of energy produced, approximately 1 MJ, is enough to power an electric car for about 2.5 kilometers.)
What is the Timeline for Delivering Cheap Abundant Nuclear Fusion Power?
Should we be optimistic that there will be a breakthrough soon?
Critics of nuclear fusion often remark that “fusion is always 30 years in the future.”
And if history is any guide, they have a point.
For example, the original torus design for creating fusion energy is hardly new; it was first suggested in the early 1950s by Russian Soviet physicists Igor Tamm and Andrei Sakharov, and this architecture is still called by its Russian name, Tokamak.
The European JET project, located in Oxfordshire, UK, first became operational in 1983. In February 2022, it set a record for the amount of energy produced in its facility, but after 40 years, it will be retired this year to be replaced by a new facility in France, the ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor).
Here in the USA, LLNL’s NIF project first received Congressional funding in the 1990s, becoming operational in 2009 – and it took until December 2022 for it to produce more energy than it consumed.
Compared to other technologies, nuclear fusion’s development progress seems quite slow.
ITER’s published timeline for future development milestones is no faster.
They say they will have a nuclear fusion demonstration project (called DEMO) in place by 2040 and a prototype facility (PROTO) by 2060 – which is, as the saying goes, about 30 years away.
Researchers Shutaro Takeda, Alexander Ryota Keeley, and Shunsuke Managi writing for the Journal of Fusion Energy, have taken a serious look at the projected timelines, and they have concluded: “Fusion was said to be 19.3 years away 30 years ago; it was 28.3 years away 20 years ago; 27.8 years away 10 years ago.’’ And now, scientists believe fusion energy is only 17.8 years away.”
Private Investment May Speed Up the Development of Large-Scale Nuclear Fusion
What could speed up the development of large-scale nuclear fusion?
Some critics say that the biggest breakthroughs might come from entrepreneurs working in the private sector, and indeed, we are already seeing signs of progress.
For example, Google recently provided AI technology to the JET project to help manage the complex controls required to keep the plasma on track.
Bloomberg reports that investment in private nuclear fusion energy laboratory project projects is rising.
For example, the UK startup Light Fusion and others are experimenting with using projectiles to create the instantaneous high pressure needed to initiate fusion (not unlike the original shaped charges used in the Manhattan Project.)
Another startup, ZAP Energy in Seattle, has attracted high-flying investors, including Same Altman, Jeff Bezos, and Bill Gates. Their approach eschews the torus Tokamak architecture in favor of a dumbbell-shaped device that will constrain or “pinch” the hot plasma gas using high-power magnetic fields.
If it Ever Arrives, Fusion Touts Many Potential Advantages – and Some Serious Disadvantages as Well
If it can be viable, nuclear fusion could help us transition away from fossil fuels by providing an energy source that works at night, unlike solar and wind power that go offline at night when the winds die down and the sun doesn’t shine.
And it’s true, compared to conventional nuclear energy based on fission, nuclear fusion does not create radioactive pollution that lasts millennia. However, the actual equipment does get bombarded with nuclear energy, which not only makes it radioactive (just not as dangerous as fission by-products), but this exposure can wear out the equipment fairly quickly, leading to expensive downtime as replacement gear is fitted.
Another advantage touted by nuclear fusion advocates is that the input materials are cheap and limitless. This bears some further investigation. Are the materials required inexhaustible?
For example, some systems in development use radioactive Tritium (a rare 3 isotope of hydrogen), which is expensive (some critics claim using Tritium could cost $1 million per day in commercial energy production) and is most commonly supplied by conventional nuclear reactors.
Production fusion systems would also be complicated – requiring significant amounts of energy to make energy (known as parasitic energy loss). In most proposed designs, heat from fusion will need to create steam, driving turbines to generate the electricity output (aside from ZAP Energy mentioned above, which claims to produce electricity directly).
The Real Competitor to Nuclear Fusion may be a Solar Energy + Energy Storage Solution
Unfortunately for nuclear fusion research advocates, developments in solar energy and energy storage solutions may make fusion obsolete.
Lab research is driving down the cost of solar energy rapidly, and new flexible panels that can be attached nearly anywhere have hit the market.
What remains to be solved is how to store solar energy produced during the day so it can be used at night.
The key here is the development of cheap large-scale battery storage and energy management systems.
If these come to market, making a financial case for nuclear fusion might become very difficult.
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