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Private Sector Takes Lead in Nuclear Fusion Race

Nuclear fusion is closer than ever to becoming a commercial reality as the private sector takes over research and development. For decades, nuclear fusion research lay outside the scope of private enterprise, as the leading technology used to conduct such experiments were so prohibitively expensive that only public funding could reasonably be expected to foot the bill. But now, thanks to a breakthrough from one of those state-funded projects, nuclear fusion has become far more accessible, and venture capitalists have wasted no time jumping into the nascent market. 

Nuclear fusion - the natural process that powers our sun - is often touted as the holy grail of clean energy research because of its ability to produce near-infinite amounts of completely carbon-free energy. But reproducing such a process here on Earth has proven difficult and costly. Some experiments have had some success in achieving a nuclear fusion reaction, but creating a sustained reaction that emits more energy than went into it is another story. 

Less than a decade ago, the most promising technology for nuclear fusion was enormous tokamak reactors, a massive donut-shaped machine that uses magnetic fields to heat and confine plasma. The most promising of these projects, ITER (short for the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor) is so huge that the machine weighs 23,000 tons, and will cost a projected €22 billion - at least - funded and run by a consortium of 35 countries. The megaproject is slated to reach first plasma in 2025, and will be able to heat that plasma to a mind-blowing 150 million degrees Celsius (approximately 270 million degrees Fahrenheit). 

ITER has been in development for decades now, and is years behind schedule and billions over budget. And it's no longer the most promising technology for nuclear fusion. Everything changed a year ago when the National Ignition Facility, or NIF, at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory managed to achieve ignition by blasting a small amount of nuclear fuel with lasers. Ignition refers to a nuclear fusion reaction which produces more energy than it absorbs - and a tokamak reactor has never successfully achieved it. 

This is bad news for ITER, but it's great news for the private sector, as laser technology is much more accessible than building a 23,000-ton magnetic torus. Accordingly, a new crop of laser-based fusion start-ups has popped up in recent years. This tech-ification of the nuclear fusion research and development process is now the best hope we have of achieving commercial nuclear fusion - what some see as the 'silver bullet' for climate change. 

These smaller companies will have much more maneuverability to experiment with different "variations on the theme" of laser-based ignition, such as "different lasers, different techniques to set off the fusion reactions, different elements to fuse together," according to recent reporting from the New York Times. This freedom to experiment is essential to the advancement of nuclear fusion tech, which still has a lot of growing to do before it becomes promising in any kind of commercial application. 

Promisingly, these start-ups have also been buoyed by a new raft of funding targeted at these kinds of smaller scale, private nuclear projects. Last year, nuclear fusion funding reached an important milestone when it was included in the Biden administration's Inflation Reduction Act to the tune of $280 million, and in May of this year, the United States Department of Energy announced $46 million earmarked for commercial fusion energy development. And the U.S. government is not alone in its renewed enthusiasm for the technology. All told, investment in the global fusion industry has now reached a cumulative $6.21 billion, according to the third annual Global Fusion Industry Report from the Fusion Industry Association (FIA). 

"Beyond private investment, it is also notable that we are seeing an increase in public-private partnerships, and an emerging regulatory framework for fusion, which will de-risk future investments,"  FIA CEO Andrew Holland said of the report. "This shows that governments are beginning to plan for fusion energy and a sure sign of a maturing industry. This all comes as companies report they are increasingly confident of hitting their ambitious milestones."

By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com

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Haley Zaremba

Haley Zaremba is a writer and journalist based in Mexico City. She has extensive experience writing and editing environmental features, travel pieces, local news in the… More