Breakthrough proves fusion is a shot at the stars worth taking

The recent breakthrough in fusion technology may not herald an imminent near-term solution to the world’s energy problems but highly motivated private startups and ambitious, public multinational projects are still worth the billions in investment they are attracting.

A record-breaking test run at the UK Atomic Energy Authority’s (UKAEA) Joint European Torus (JET) at the end of last year has helped feed growing enthusiasm for a technology that, proponents say, could change the global energy sector forever.

On Dec. 21, EUROfusion scientists and engineers at JET produced 59 megajoules (MJ) of sustained fusion energy over 5 seconds.  

“By showing that we can produce significant amounts of power and, unlike the previous record, sustain that in a machine with a metal wall … that’s a major milestone and the next generation of devices should be able to build on those results,” says the head of JET Operations at the UKAEA Joe Milnes.

JET’s achievement did not exceed the peak fusion power produced during the previous record conducted in 1997 (16 MW compared to an average of 11 MW in the December experiment) but it more than doubles the 21.7 MJ hit then and, importantly, was sustained.

JET performance in 2021 vs 1997

Source: EUROfusion 

Multinational science experiment

JET is a test facility for another fusion experiment currently being built in Cadarache, France, a multinational joint science venture which is arguably the largest and most ambitious in modern history.

Originally started as a peace initiative between then U.S.-President Ronald Reagan and President of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985, ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor) is a rare example of a truly international project.

Funded and run by the European Union, the United States, Japan, China, Russia, India, and South Korea, ITER scientists hope first power-on in 2025 and first introduce nuclear fuel in 2035.

The figures behind the structure under construction illustrate how important the smaller JET project is in finding and solving problems before billions of euros are piled into its larger cousin.

After JET produced 23 MJ, the ITER team were charged with making necessary adjustments based on the learning gleaned from that experiment. For example, in 1997, a lot of the Tritium fuel ended up trapped inside the carbon walls, too much to be sustainable.

“So, we undertook a major engineering project to change the whole of the inside of the wall of JET, that’s 16,000 components, 4 tons of metal, all done using the most sophisticated robots on the planet,” said Ian Chapman, UKAEA's CEO, during the announcement of the JET Deuterium-Tritium results in February.

“Now, fuel trapped is 10 times lower in the new wall than the previous. We’ve established high confidence that ITER will be a first-of-its-kind.”  

The 100,000 kilometers of niobium-tin (Nb3Sn) superconducting strands necessary for ITER’s toroidal field magnets were fabricated between 2009 and 2014 across six ITER Domestic Agencies – China, European Union, Japan, South Korea, Russia, and the United States – increasing the worldwide production to 150 tons a year from pre-ITER levels of a maximum of 15 tons a year.

The heaviest components of the machine include a piece weighing almost 900 tons while the largest will be almost 11 meters high and 9 meters across. Both will be shipped to the nearest Mediterranean port before being transported along a specially modified road known as the ITER Itinerary.

The ITER machine, when finished, will weigh some 23,000 tons.

“Our efforts are very much aimed at benefitting ITER, because ITER, last time I looked, will cost around a million euros a day to operate, so every day we can speed up that program, every short cut we can allow them to make, everything we can do to keep them on track is worth a huge amount to them and the whole fusion community,” says UKAEA’s Milnes.

The ultimate quest

When UKAEA’s Chapman presented the results, he called the journey to develop fusion as a “noble quest” with many hurdles that needed to be identified and beaten.

One of those challenges is to assure that the level of energy produced by the machines is more than the massive amount of electricity used to power them.  

Efficiently producing electricity from fusion requires more than making a better fusion heat source and there are still some major technological challenges to be overcome, including the materials used, says Director of the Fusion Energy Division at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory Mickey Wade.

“This is about as extreme an environment that you’re ever going to see on Earth.  While we have identified many of the necessary technical developments required to make fusion happen, you’re probably not going to realize what all the challenges are until you encounter this environment in real life. You just have to anticipate that there are more out there,” says Wade.

Milnes is convinced that, even considering the high level of energy used to power the new machines, efficiency gains will eventually make that level of energy, and more.

“What a large power plant might need to do is use a similar amount of input power again, say 50 MW, but will need to get about 1 to 2 GW out to compensate for losses and still generate plenty of net power. Given what we’ve done on JET, with some of the advances in areas such as materials and super conducting magnets, we believe that should be doable,” he says. 

A bet worth making

Meanwhile, as scientists and engineers struggle over increasing efficiency of their 'mini stars', investors are pouring huge amounts of cash into individual projects.

As a result, many of these projects, including private ventures such as Canada’s General Fusion, which enjoys backing from investors such as Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, or Bill Gates-backed Commonwealth Fusion Systems, are claiming they will be ready to pump electricity into the grid by the end of the decade.

Many experts think this is unlikely. The construction, licensing, fuel acquisition, and locating of a tried-and-tested fission nuclear facility can take over a decade and, since fusion is still in its infancy, it seems improbable that fusion will jump the queue so quickly.

While fusion-generated electrical power may indeed still be 30 years away, as a common refrain since its conception in the 1940s states, investors are increasingly seduced by the new world order implied at the core of a successful breakthrough in fusion technology.

“The question to an investor is, can you afford not to invest in the commercialization of fusion? It’s a risk reward topic. It is the type of technology that, if you have a breakthrough, the winner takes it all. It’s absolutely massive,” said PJ Deschenes, Co-Head of Nomura Greentech, a boutique investment bank that focuses on sustainable sectors.

By Paul Day