Forbes By Ariel Cohen | Jan 14, 2019
Two recent developments in the world of fusion power are giving scientists and policymakers newfound optimism for the elusive ‘holy grail’ of energy technologies. The first is a discovery by the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) which uses radio frequency (RF) technology to greatly reduce so-called ‘plasma disruption’ – the leading challenge to achieving a sustained, net energy gain fusion reaction. This is a key element in making fusion a feasible source of electricity.
The second is a report by a panel of distinguished scientists from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine to the DOE which concluded that a $200 million annual investment in the technology for the next several decades could lead to a commercially viable reactor before 2050. This timeline includes demonstrating energy-gain fusion (a reaction which produces more energy than it takes in) by the mid-2020s and a concept reactor by the 2030s.
As I’ve written about before, nuclear fusion is a technology that is easy to get excited about. The power emitted from sustained thermonuclear fusion is safe, carbon-free, and abundant. The primary fuel – hydrogen isotopes – can be found in regular sea water, and just a few grams are enough to kick-start a reaction.
General Atomics, a manufacturer of the powerful magnets necessary for fusion plasma containment, estimates that a working reactor would only need 11 pounds of hydrogen to generate the energy equivalent of 18,750 tons of coal, 56,000 barrels of oil or 755 acres of solar panels – an amazing feat of science and technology.
The implications are near limitless. Aside from the obvious benefits for combatting climate change, ending energy scarcity, and growing the global economy, fusion could also have applications for space travel and U.S. national security (provided we develop the technology first).
It’s no wonder, then, that a number of private entities are aggressively pursuing the technology. Lockheed Martin (NYSE:LMT) announced last year its plan to develop a prototype compact fusion reactor (CFR) within the next decade. If it works, the truck-sized device would be capable of providing enough electricity to meet the demand of a small city of 100,000 people. Lockheed is joined by TAE Technologies, The Massachusetts Institute of Technology Plasma Fusion Center (MIT PSFC), and Canadian-backed General Fusion Inc., in a group of contenders promising to bring fusion commercialization before 2030. Even Amazon’s (NYSE:AMZN) Jeff Bezos and Microsoft’s (NYSE:MSFT) Bill Gates have thrown their hats into the fusion power ring.
But don’t get too excited – this tricky technology has eluded scientists for more than 50 years.
The Fusion process is the same one that powers our sun (you can think of a star as one gigantic fusion reactor): hydrogen atoms forced together under immense heat and pressure break their atomic bonds, fusing into a new heavier element, helium. Some mass is lost in the process, however, and great amounts of energy are released as a result. This is what Einstein’s famous formula E=mc² describes: the tiny bit of lost mass (m), multiplied by the square of the speed of light (c²), results in a very large figure (E), which is the amount of energy created by a fusion reaction.
The catch is that these reactions generate very hot and very unstable globs of plasma (in excess of 500 million degrees Fahrenheit) which require tremendous amounts of energy to maintain. To date, the longest recorded sustained plasma operation is just over one minute long.
Scientists believe that magnetic fields offer the best method for containing the super-heated plasma, a key principle of the Soviet-designed Tokamak reactors – which most of today’s leading prototypes are modeled after.
The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) project under construction in Cadarache, France is the most celebrated Tokamak-style reactor in existence. The multi-billion dollar, 35-nation effort including the United States, Russia, China, India, the European Union, Japan and South Korea and is now on pace for a 2050 commercial debut after a number of cost overruns and delays.
The United States has already contributed $1.13 billion to ITER since 2016, roughly 9 percent of ITER’s total costs. For the international project to meet its current timeline, the National Academy of scientists estimates that the U.S. will need to contribute at least another $2.2 billion over the next decade (certainly not chump change, but a small price to pay for a revolutionary energy breakthrough).
The 19 scientists who urged the DOE to continue their pursuit of fusion technology are primarily advocating for increased U.S. involvement in ITER, noting that it still represents humanity’s best shot at making fusion a reality. According to Professor Nat Fisch, associate director for academic affairs at PPPL, the new radio frequency discovery should make it much easier to stabilize ITER plasmas – a huge step toward fusion viability.
However, post-World War Two tech developments from hydraulic fraction to Apple (NYSE:AAPL) smartphones to TESLA (NYSE:TSLA) electric cars suggest that it is the private sector, profit-driven companies and entrepreneurs, that are most effective in the commercialization of basic science.
While fusion technology certainly seems to be gaining momentum in academic, policymaking, and venture capital circles, the promise of reliable fusion power has always been ‘just a decade or two away.’ No one is rooting for the success of this energy panacea more than I am, but if history is any guide, we should not hold our breath just yet.