The race is on to achieve commercial nuclear fusion. Believers in the “holy grail of clean energy” are hopeful that a breakthrough in nuclear fusion is imminent enough that the clean energy source could power a green energy transition sweeping and swift enough to help the world achieve the emissions targets set by the Paris climate accord.
In order to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, leading climate scientists and policymakers from around the world agree that the global community needs to keep the planet from warming more than 1.5 degrees Celcius over pre-industrial averages in the best-case scenario, and 2 degrees Celsius at worst. This is a tall order to say the least, considering past trends and a business-as-usual scenario, and will require unprecedented global cooperation and collaboration. What’s more, the window for achieving this kind of economic and systems overhaul is closing quickly.
Nuclear fusion has been posited as a kind of silver bullet solution to a seemingly insurmountable and wicked problem. For the better part of the last century, fusion has been a thing of science fiction and thought experiments rather than lab experiments. But in recent years major breakthroughs have brought commercial nuclear fusion closer to reality than ever before. Fusion, which is the form of energy production that powers the sun, involves the fusing of atoms, which emits several times more energy than nuclear fission, the atom-splitting technology that currently takes place at nuclear power plants. And, unlike nuclear fission, fusion leaves behind no radioactive waste and carries no risk of nuclear meltdown, making it an ideal candidate for a virtually limitless clean energy future.
So far, relatively few large-scale nuclear fusion initiatives have gotten off the ground, due to huge barriers to entry. Because of the enormous expense associated with building a reactor capable of facilitating fusion, so far the field has been dominated by publicly funded projects such as Europe’s ITER and China’s EAST (Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak). As scientists have gotten closer and closer to achieving ‘ignition’ – which refers to a nuclear fusion reaction that emits more energy than it consumes – the private sector has become increasingly interested in getting into the industry on the bottom floor and positioning itself at the forefront of what could be a world-changing innovation. So far, while nuclear fusion has been successfully achieved in labs, ignition has remained elusive.
Now, however, the playing field is changing and competition is heating up as private enterprise gets involved. Last year, the nascent nuclear fusion sector was the recipient of more than 2.6 billion USD in venture capital, primarily in the United States. Now, however, fusion fever has hopped across the pond and is seriously gaining traction among private enterprises in Europe. Even in Germany, Europe’s preeminent anti-nuclear authority, nuclear fusion has gained significant ground. Marvel Fusion, a Munich-based company has raised 35 million Euros (about 40 million USD) for their nuclear fusion venture, and has recently solidified partnerships with Siemens Energy, France’s Thales, and the privately-owned German mechanical engineering group Trumpf.
Like some of its private counterparts in the United States, Marvel Fusion is not relying on the massive magnets and extreme heat which are the basis of mass-scale fusion experiments like ITER, but is instead employing targeted lasters to trigger nuclear fusion reactions. This model is in its infancy, but holds great promise and has clearly gained the confidence of investors with deep pockets. “It’s a theoretical model, which is essentially a very large computer simulation, and then step by step it is being validated in an experimental campaign that started last year,” Marvel Fusion chief executive Moritz von der Linden told the Financial Times for an article published last week.
The newfound interest in nuclear fusion in Europe coincides with a serious energy crunch which has shown the fallibility of the continent’s energy security in recent months. The shortage of energy has sent energy prices through the roof and revealed the extent of Europe’s dependence on Russia for natural gas. The ability to create virtually limitless clean energy at will is an undeniably attractive possibility. With enough money and support from the public and private sectors across the world could give nuclear fusion the final push it needs to break through to ignition in time to save the planet from climate catastrophe and geopolitical crisis.
By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com
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