A powerful combination of scientific breakthroughs, private and public funding, and governmental support has drastically changed the outlook for commercial nuclear fusion. Just ten years ago, reporters and industry experts alike were still joking that “Nuclear fusion is 30 years away...and always will be.” Now, seemingly very suddenly, the narrative has shifted from a conversation about “if” to one about “when.” Instead of postulating that we may possibly see reliable and scalable ignition in our lifetimes, experts are now saying that we could see pilot nuclear power plants within a decade.
In the last three years, everything has changed. Scientific breakthroughs have increased exponentially overnight. All of them have been key to the evolution of the nascent technology, but three in particular have combined to tip the commercial nuclear fusion scales from pipe dream to possibility. First, in 2021, researchers at the Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (EAST) in Hefei, China shattered previous records for a sustained steady-state fusion reaction, achieving fusion for a groundbreaking 1,056 seconds, or nearly 20 minutes. Just a few months later, The Joint European Torus (JET) in Oxfordshire more than doubled its previous fusion record (set way back in 1997) when it produced 59 megajoules of fusion energy in a single experiment.
But the most important breakthrough came last December, researchers at the National Ignition Facility (NIF) in California made a massive breakthrough when they became the first team to finally overcome what is still nuclear fusion’s most significant barrier: creating net positive energy from the fusion reaction. The now legendary experiment laser-beamed 2.05 megajoules of light onto an amount of fusion fuel about the size of a peppercorn, sparking an impressive explosion producing 3.15 MJ of energy – around the equivalent of three sticks of dynamite.
The building momentum in scientific breakthroughs has been enabled by – and in turn has enabled – a massive increase in funding. Historically, the vast majority of fusion experiments have been publicly funded, as governments were more or less the only entities with deep enough pockets to afford the massively ambitious experiments. But in recent years the private sector has gotten increasingly involved in fusion funding thanks in large part to a veritable flood of venture capital, with considerable success. The shortlist of private investors includes such heavy hitters as Jeff Bezos, Peter Thiel, Lockheed Martin, Goldman Sachs, Legal & General, and Chevron.
But the public sector, too, has kept pace. Still, the majority of the most significant fusion reactors are publicly funded and managed, and some of the most promising new fusion projects are indeed public enterprises. The Atomic Energy Commission and the U.S. Department of Energy have recently partnered with private firms such as General Atomics, marking an important development in the marriage of private and public sectors. And policy measures to support the advancement of nuclear fusion research and experimentation has also increased in recent years. The Biden administration’s Inflation Reduction Act, for example, earmarked $280 million for fusion projects.
But it’s not all good news. Fusion remains enormously expensive, and the achievement of net energy production remains elusive. Even ITER, the world’s biggest (and most promising, according to some) fusion experiment co-funded by 35 nations in the South of France, is currently vastly over budget and behind schedule. Unsurprisingly, Covid hasn’t helped. ITER had originally projected that first plasma would be achieved in 2025. That has now been pushed back by a full year – at the very least.
Furthermore, the sector faces significant regulatory challenges. “Beyond the engineering and financial issues, fusion will also need a regulatory framework,” Power recently reported, before going on to note that, currently, “both the industry and the NRC [Nuclear Regulatory Commission] agree that the current framework designed for fission reactors is not appropriate for fusion power plants.”
Despite the significant setbacks and challenges facing scalable nuclear fusion, the outlook is definitively better than it's ever been. In the words of Power, “The large number of projects working in parallel suggest that net energy could potentially be achieved via magnetic fusion in the late 2020s, which would conveniently coincide with the forthcoming NRC regulatory framework. Should that occur, it is likely that funding will be available for the first FPPs, which could come online as soon as the early 2030s.”
By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com
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