After decades of disappointingly slow but steady progress, the race for fusion energy is now fully on, with governments, scientific institutions and private enterprises pouring billions of dollars into this potentially world-altering technology.
Fusion is the process that occurs in stars, such as our sun, when hydrogen atoms fuse together, producing helium — and staggering amounts of energy. The prospect of achieving fusion has tantalized researchers because it would provide a safe, clean and limitless source of energy, with no threat of meltdown.
Realizing that dream has taken on a special urgency: The availability of fusion energy would be a monumental breakthrough in the battle against climate change. But the technical challenges of essentially creating an artificial mini-star have been daunting.
Scientists have made fusion happen with various approaches, but more energy was expended in those experiments than was released. The turning point will come when more energy is produced than goes in. (Fusion shouldn’t be confused with fission, which is used in nuclear power plants and involves the splitting of uranium atoms.)
The roadblocks have started to fall away in recent years, thanks to the use of supercomputers to model and optimize the design of fusion systems, and to a new generation of superconductors that increase the magnetic fields that contain the artificial star, thereby dramatically decreasing the required size of fusion devices. Advanced manufacturing techniques for specialized fusion materials have also been developed.
Recognizing that fusion may pass from theory to practical application, many governments and scientific institutions have scrambled to take the scientific lead. The latest development in this competition was the announcement last month that the Energy Department has authorized a pilot program to encourage private industry to use the resources of U.S. national laboratories with the goal of commercializing fusion energy.
China has invested nearly a billion dollars in its fusion energy program. In September, Britain pledged $246 million toward the development of a commercially viable fusion power plant by 2040.
But the world’s biggest fusion effort involves a collaboration between China, the European Union, India, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the United States. These entities have contributed tens of billions of dollars for a giant fusion experiment in southern France called ITER, with the goal of producing net energy. Construction began on a 103-acre site in 2010. Now, after delays, the device is projected to turn on in 2025, with the first production of net energy plasma — the superheated fourth state of matter — planned for 2035. A major milestone in the construction is scheduled for March, when the nearly 100-foot, 1,370-ton base of the largest stainless-steel high-vacuum pressure chamber ever built will be installed.
At the same time, technological advances in recent years have spurred the interest of investors — mostly in the United States, but also in Canada and Britain — in the potential for commercial fusion that is smaller, faster and more economical. According to the Fusion Industry Association, private investment in entrepreneurial fusion projects has reached $1 billion to $1.5 billion, reflecting a growing appetite for a game-changing energy source.
The United States has an opportunity to lead the world in fusion energy, capitalizing on robust research programs in academic institutions and government-sponsored national labs and on a growing Fusion Industry Association, which has more than a dozen companies working on different approaches to fusion energy.
In contrast to its international competitors, the United States brings a worldview that favors early involvement of industry in technology development and a greater appetite for tackling technology risk if it leads to commercial viability. This viewpoint was reflected in a National Academies study published last year that recommended building on knowledge gained from preparing for the ITER project to develop a compact pilot plant that would lay the groundwork for the first commercial fusion power systems.
In response, the U.S. fusion community has undertaken an initiative to better align government, academia and private industry to work on common goals in fusion energy. This new initiative is focused on developing the country’s first comprehensive strategic plan for fusion in decades.
Such public-private partnerships will be essential for faster progress. To that end, Congress should consider significantly increasing funding for fusion programs at the Energy Department, which was created to keep the United States at the forefront of discovery.
This is a critical moment for such funding decisions. Other governments are investing billions in fusion. Many private companies are looking to make decisions about backing the construction of demonstration machines and fusion-power prototype systems that will produce power on the grid. They are considering options around the globe. Strategic, innovation-aligned U.S. investment would help ensure that this country becomes the home of a world-changing — and potentially world-saving — technology.
Dennis Whyte is an engineering professor and the director of the Plasma Science and Fusion Center at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.