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Felicity Bradstock

Felicity Bradstock

Felicity Bradstock is a freelance writer specialising in Energy and Finance. She has a Master’s in International Development from the University of Birmingham, UK.

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Scientists Inch Closer to the Holy Grail of Clean Energy

  • Successful fusion experiments in the US and UK raise hopes for achieving clean and abundant energy through nuclear fusion.
  • Challenges remain in scaling up fusion processes to commercially viable levels, with scientists estimating a wait until the second half of the century.
  • Companies like Helion Energy are attracting significant investment despite the long timelines, aiming to bring the first fusion power plants online within the next decade.
Fusion

After several decades of failed attempts, scientists believe they are finally edging closer to achieving nuclear fusion at the scale needed to produce abundant clean energy. Several successful tests in recent years have made energy experts optimistic about the future of nuclear fusion, although some believe we are still a long way off achieving commercial-scale fusion. Nevertheless, the achievements seen at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in the U.S. and other labs around the globe have encouraged companies to invest heavily in the sector. 

Last August, U.S. scientists achieved net energy gain in a fusion reaction for the second time at the National Ignition Facility (NIF) in California. This marked a huge breakthrough in nuclear technology. The fusion reaction produced 3.15 megajoules of energy, which was more than that generated in the first successful attempt. Earlier this year, scientists at the U.K.-based JET laboratory achieved more energy production through a fusion process than ever before. The achievement came during the lab's final experiment after four decades of fusion research. 

While this is promising, scientists are quick to emphasize that this does not mean we are anywhere near achieving commercial-scale nuclear fusion. Dr Aneeqa Khan, Research Fellow in Nuclear Fusion, University of Manchester, explained, “In order for the atoms to fuse together on Earth, we need temperatures ten times hotter than the Sun - around 100 million Celsius, and we need a high enough density of the atoms and for a long enough time.” The JET lab experiment produced 69 megajoules of energy over five seconds, equivalent to the energy for around four to five hot baths. This means that researchers are still a long way off achieving the results needed to develop fusion power plants. However, this achievement brings the industry one step closer to attaining its fusion goals. 

Nuclear fission, the nuclear power process being used today, happens when a neutron collides with a larger atom, which forces it to excite and split into two smaller atoms. Additional neutrons are also released, which can start a chain reaction. When each atom splits, it releases a huge amount of energy. Uranium and plutonium are used to run nuclear power reactors as they are easy to initiate and control. The energy that is released in these reactors, using fission, heats water into steam, which is used to spin a turbine to produce carbon-free electricity. 

In contrast, nuclear fusion is the process that powers stars. It can be achieved by heating and forcing tiny particles together to create a heavier one, which releases energy. If scientists can figure out how to successfully scale up this process to commercial levels, it could produce vast quantities of clean energy with no carbon emissions. It would also offer a much more stable clean energy source than wind and solar power. 

While most scientists agree that we are still a long way from achieving fusion at the scale needed to power a nuclear plant, that is not discouraging companies from investing heavily in the sector. In 2023, Microsoft signed a power purchase agreement with Helion Energy, which states that the energy company will provide the tech giant with fusion energy in around five years. Helion hopes to bring a plant online by 2028, targeting 50 MW of power generation. Just 1 MW is enough to power around 1,000 U.S. households for a day. Helion expects its seventh-generation machine, Polaris, to come online next year to provide electricity using pulsed high-power magnet technologies to achieve fusion. It was the first private company to achieve 100 million degrees Celsius and has high hopes of scaling up its technology. 

David Kirtley, Helion's founder and CEO, stated, “Fifty megawatts is a big first step of commercial-scale fusion, and the revenue feeds right back into us developing more power plants and getting fusion out on the grid both in the United States and internationally as fast as possible.” Helion has so far raised $612 million in venture capital, with the potential of a further $1.8 billion in funding if it meets its promised deadlines. It has received a further $8.97 million in federal grants.

OpenAI has also invested heavily in Helion, around $375 million to date. This month, OpenAI CEO and co-founder Sam Altman allegedly entered talks with Helion about purchasing fusion-generated electricity for its data centers. Altman stated at the World Economic Forum in Davos earlier in the year, “There’s no way to get there without a breakthrough... We need fusion or we need like radically cheaper solar plus storage or something at massive scale.” 

While there is great enthusiasm around the potential to produce abundant clean energy through nuclear fusion, and this will undoubtedly take a great deal of funding, companies may be jumping the gun when making power purchase agreements. There is a general consensus among scientists that we will be unlikely to achieve commercial-scale nuclear fusion until the second half of the century. Researchers have repeatedly predicted that fusion will be available within 20, 30 or 50 years over the last few decades, with no real way of knowing how long it will take. Steven Cowley, the director of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, explains “Suppose we get a pilot plant that works by the end of the 2030s, although that would be going some,” such a plant is unlikely to be a blueprint for commercialization, and so, he says, “I think you'd have another stage of about 10 years from a pilot plant to the first commercial reactor.”  

By Felicity Bradstock for Oilprice.com

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