For the past 100 years, commercial nuclear fusion has existed in a realm far closer to science fiction than to scientific practice. In fact, when English mathematician and astronomer Arthur Eddington hypothesized that our sun and stars generate their own power through a process of merging atoms to create massive amounts of energy, heat, and light just a century ago, he was very nearly dismissed as a quack. But since that time, nuclear fusion has advanced by leaps and bounds, from thought experiments to lab-tested experiments, and in the last few years, to major breakthroughs that hint that commercial fusion could really finally be just around the corner.
Nuclear fusion is sought after as the “holy grail of clean energy” because it is a totally clean energy source with the potential to create essentially limitless power with absolutely zero greenhouse gas emissions if the full power of fusion reactions can be harnessed by humans. “Simply put, nuclear fusion is the process by which two light atomic nuclei combine to form a single heavier one while releasing massive amounts of energy, the International Atomic Energy Agency explains. “Fusion reactions take place in a state of matter called plasma — a hot, charged gas made of positive ions and free-moving electrons that has unique properties distinct from solids, liquids and gases.”
The trick is creating an environment here on Earth that facilitates fusion, but recreating the kind of conditions found in the core of the sun is a tall order. Amazingly, scientists are already capable of creating man-made nuclear fusion reactions in controlled spaces. The issue is that provoking these reactions requires immense amounts of energy, and so far controlled nuclear fusion experiments have not been able to produce more energy than they consume.
Experimenting with nuclear fusion is an extraordinarily expensive endeavor. The reactors that are built big enough to achieve potentially commercially viable fusion are massive, and require huge amounts of costly materials as well as years of research and development led by some of the smartest scientists out there. Because of these massive barriers to entry, huge government projects have led the charge toward nuclear fusion. Related: Metals Will Be The Oil Of The Future
ITER, an intergovernmental project located in the South of France, has announced that it expects to reach net-positive energy in its massive tokamak reactor by 2036, with a price tag of around $22 billion. China also has an “artificial sun” which set a record for a sustained nuclear plasma reaction this summer. But now, for the first time in nuclear fusion history, private companies are entering the race to get to commercial fusion first.
In what can be seen as a clear sign that nuclear fusion is getting close to viability, private financiers are getting involved in the research and development process and funneling money into nuclear fusion startups. Just this month, Helion Energy, based in Washington State, was the subject of what is allegedly the largest single fundraising round for a private fusion firm in history. The company raised $500 million in this round alone, and will receive another $1.7 billion, contingent on achieving designated performance milestones. Helion’s reactor has already achieved the necessary temperature threshold of 100 million degrees Celsius, and the company says it will reach net-positive energy by 2024.
“Other private companies have set similar targets: TAE Technologies in California says it will be commercially viable by 2030, while MIT’s Commonwealth Fusion Systems expects its reactor to achieve this goal by 2025,” Quartz reported this week. “The UK, which says it wants to become the first country to commercialize fusion energy, has set a more modest target. The government has invested in a £200 million ($248-million) reactor which it hopes will be viable by 2040.”
Whether by causation or correlation, the nuclear fusion industry is heating up at the same time that the rest of the world is getting serious about combating climate change. Weaning the world off of fossil fuels in time to meet the targets set by the Paris climate accord is an urgent imperative that is going to be extremely hard to meet without serious technological advances. While commercial nuclear fusion still isn’t a proven technology, the influx of new actors to the market with lofty goals of achieving net-positive energy production before mid-century is certainly a hopeful development.
By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com
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