Fusion is thirty years away…and always will be. That is an oft-repeated cliché concerning one of the world’s most coveted – and so far unreachable – sources of energy. However, some recent developments in fusion energy technology could one day make that phrase obsolete.
Fusion energy is the phenomenon that powers the stars. Unlike conventional nuclear fission, where a uranium atom is split, giving off enormous volumes of energy, nuclear fusion is the process by which two hydrogen atoms are slammed together. This also gives off a vast quantity of energy, and with it, the promise that man can harness the most ideal source of energy.
That is because fusion would be nearly limitless. Hydrogen would be the principle source of fuel, an element found commonly around the world. But it would also be a clean source of energy since fusion would not emit greenhouse gases. And unlike the nuclear reactors of today, it would not present problems of weapons proliferation or meltdowns, since fusion reactors simply shut down if they encounter a problem.
That is the vision, anyway. The problem is that fusion has been a tough nut to crack. There have been enormous advances in the science and engineering, yet technical challenges remain. In short, the problem has been the inability to generate more power out than is required to be put in.
Research into fusion has been ongoing since the 1950’s. It even became a cause for peace between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. eager to deescalate the threat of nuclear war. In the 1980’s the two superpowers, along with several other countries, agreed to cooperate on one of the world’s most difficult science and engineering projects. They agreed to jointly build a magnetic fusion pilot power plant – called ITER – which is now under construction in France.
There are two main approaches to fusion: one using magnets and one using lasers. Magnetic fusion involves capturing and holding plasma gas in a donut shaped device called a tokamak. The plasma is heated to around 90 million degrees Celsius – or five times hotter than the surface of the sun – creating the conditions for hydrogen atoms to fuse together. The leading magnetic fusion facility in the world is the Joint European Torus (JET), a European project based in the United Kingdom. And when it is completed sometime in the 2020’s, the ITER project will be the most advanced magnetic fusion demonstration to date.
The laser fusion approach uses giant lasers to shoot a fuel pellet, which is made up of hydrogen atoms. The shot forces the hydrogen atoms together. The National Ignition Facility (NIF), which houses the world’s largest and most energetic laser, is the leading laser fusion institution. Located in California, the NIF achieved a long-sought milestone in early 2014 – it generated net positive energy for the first time ever, a tremendous achievement and a stepping stone for further development of fusion energy.
It is too early to tell which approach will prove to be the most viable for energy generation, but both magnetic and laser fusion hope to capture the heat left over from fusion reactions, and use it to generate electricity just like a normal power plant.
Fusion research has been almost entirely under the purview of big research institutions and government agencies. But as the dream of developing fusion energy has become a bit more realistic in recent years, private companies are beginning to jump into the mix.
Lockheed Martin Corporation (NYSE: LMT) announced on October 15 that it has made a major breakthrough in fusion energy. Lockheed Martin has been working on a compact fusion reactor (CFR), and a secret division within the company has spent the past four years conducting research and drawing up plans. In its announcement, the major defense contractor said that due to technological breakthroughs, it could begin selling commercialized fusion reactors within a decade. Lockheed Martin hopes to have a test reactor constructed within the next year and a full prototype in five years.
“Our compact fusion concept combines several alternative magnetic confinement approaches, taking the best parts of each, and offers a 90 percent size reduction over previous concepts,” Tom McGuire, the lead on fusion energy for the Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works’ Revolutionary Technology Programs, said in a statement. “The smaller size will allow us to design, build and test the CFR in less than a year.”
The reactors would be 100 megawatts in size, and could be transported by truck. The company is seeking private sector and government partners to help develop its design, and it has several patents pending.
By going small, Lockheed Martin believes it has advantages over the larger facilities at the NIF, JET, and ITER.
A team of researchers at the University of Washington are also pursuing a small design. Instead of a tokamak, which uses a lot of superconducting coils, the UW researchers designed a simpler fusion reactor known as a spheromak. The UW team estimates that when the design is perfected, a new fusion reactor with an electrical power capacity of 1 gigawatt would cost $2.7 billion. By way of comparison, they argue a new coal plant costs $2.8 billion.
Yet another approach is underway by a wildly different entity. General Fusion is a small startup company backed by venture capital, seeking to develop fusion energy at a fraction of the cost of the bigger government-backed research institutions. General Fusion’s design uses elements of both magnetic and laser fusion, in that it crushes a donut-shaped plasma. It raised $50 million in funding in 2011 from Cenovus Energy (TSE: CVE), a Canadian oil company, and from Bezos Expeditions, which is a venture capital company founded by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos.
General Fusion has not cracked the equation yet, but it is planning to build a full-sized prototype within the next three years. The company is under the gun – venture capitalists won’t wait 30 years to see a return on their investment. Put in a more positive light, the ability to attract investment from venture capital is a remarkable vote of confidence.
It is unclear which, if any, of these campaigns will achieve the ultimate goal of harnessing fusion energy for the practical application of commercial electricity. If and when fusion energy is commercialized, it has the potential to totally disrupt energy markets the world over.
A limitless supply of electricity that could be used by any nation could solve multiple problems at once. It could provide energy access to hundreds of millions of people that currently do not have it; it could ultimately reduce pollution and resolve climate change; it could reduce global conflict by making fights over energy supplies unnecessary; and it could kick start a new period of global economic growth by reducing costs to energy supplies.
It would also cause significant economic disruption – profitable fusion energy would destroy a lot of value in the oil, natural gas, coal, and conventional nuclear power sectors while enriching the companies and investors that pave the way.
It remains a distant dream, but one that is getting closer by the day.