Fusion pioneers say tech will beat many SMRs to market
Fusion technology, boosted by a jump in private investment, will be commercially viable within the next 10 to 15 years, say scientists and startups working on the fast-developing technology, likely beating many planned advanced small modular fission reactors to market.
Fusion, which powers the sun and the stars as hydrogen atoms fuse together to form helium and energy, has been promising an almost inexhaustible source of energy with little waste for decades but, until just recently, has faced seemingly unsurmountable engineering challenges.
However, a flood of private-sector cash and state-backed investment into dozens of startups around the world has fueled the industry mantra that a commercially viable fusion reactor is a matter of “not if, but when” with many pointing to sometime in the 2030s.
“I think General Fusion has the first realistic shot on goal for a practical fusion solution in that time frame, but as with all disruptive technology developments, even though we are confident of success, nothing is guaranteed. However, there’s enough shots on goal now by credible programs that someone is going to get it in over the next decade or so,” says CEO for General Fusion Christofer Mowry.
General Fusion, near Vancouver, British Columbia, was founded in 2002 and Mowry says that through the emergence of new enabling technologies such as additive manufacturing, high speed digital controls and advanced computation and simulation, fusion has gone from a highly experimental to an inevitable industrial reality.
“We’re working with governments and private investors on a five-year prototyping program to deliver a power-plant-relevant scale demonstration of our technology ... if it works as advertised, we’ll move on to building our first commercial plant in the early 30s,” he says.
The injection of cash from private sources such as the venture capital fund owned by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and large institutional funds like Temasek means that the General Fusion is mandated to take an entrepreneurial approach to development.
“We trade risks along the journey for overall speed of development and capital efficiency, with time-to-market being the ultimate metric of success,” says Mowry.
“It will be more economic than other energy technologies, it’s intrinsically safe, you can’t make a weapon out of it, and there’s no long-term waste. It’s the ultimate cleantech and the future of energy is going to be a mix of fusion, renewables, and storage,” he says.
Meanwhile, in Britain, the government announced last October that it was committing 220 million pounds to another fusion project, the Spherical Tokamak for Energy Production (STEP).
The tokamak is a magnetic confinement device that is considered one of the leading contenders for producing fusion energy.
At Tokamak Energy Inc. CEO Jonathan Carling also believes that by 2025 the company will have built a device that will demonstrate fusion energy gain at an industrial scale.
“The device that we’ve been testing recently, ST40, is our third tokamak device. The last one was the first tokamak in the world with high temperature super conducting magnets and in this one, we’ve already run plasma temperatures hotter than the centre of the sun. Our next goal is to go up to 100 million centigrade plasma which is the sort of temperature you need for efficient fusion,” says Carling.
Progress in tokamak-based Magnetic Fusion compared to Moore’s law for semiconductors. (Source: Canadian Nuclear Society for the conference "Fusion 2030: Roadmap for Canada")
One of the most visible experiments into fusion has been the massive ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor) project which recently began official assembly with the lowering of the 1,250 tonne ITER cryostat, the largest stainless-steel high vacuum pressure chamber ever built at around 21,000 cubic metres.
Originally started as a peace initiative between then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan and President of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985, ITER is funded and run by the European Union, the United States, Japan, China, Russia, India and South Korea, and is being built in the south of France.
ITER scientists hopes to first power on the reactor in 2025 and first introduce nuclear fuel in 2035.
“Fusion sounds too good to be true and it’s up to us to prove that it isn’t. The role of ITER is to bring the scientific achievement to fruition; to build a power-plant-scale plasma to generate power-plant-scale energy and to begin the hard road of technological development,” says Head of ITER Science & Operations Department Tim Luce.
Even with the relatively elongated time line for ITER compared to private companies like General Fusion, Luce sees fusion as being a playground for scientists and engineers interested in working in energy.
“It’s like Christmas morning for an engineer. You will never come to the end of the fun that you’ll have as an engineer working in fusion. It's a fantastic challenge,” he says.
Director of the Fusion Energy Division at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory Mickey Wade, who works closely with ITER scientists, has also seen the shift over the last few years as private investors have become involved in the race to find a commercially viable fusion reactor.
“ITER has delivered a wealth of knowledge of how to bring its technologies and physics to fruition … Now, there are certain private companies that are going down paths that are potential leapfrog technologies beyond ITER,” he says.
“They’re leveraging all the information that they will need from ITER, but they’re looking at the development path that ITER is on and saying it’s going to cost too much. To some extent they’re correct.”
Wade welcomes the newcomers to the project with fusion technology remaining an unclassified area with full collaboration between participating scientists, at least until technologies are developed that can be patented.
However, he warns that private venture promises rely heavily on success at every intermediate step and the comparison with SpaceX, which saw Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp. join with NASA to launch astronauts in to space from U.S. soil last month, were not accurate.
“I think it’s extraordinarily challenging at the moment. In rocket technology, most of that knowledge existed, it’s just getting the right people together to make it happen. In our case there are significant knowledge gaps. We don’t even know what to anticipate for the problems that we will need to address,” he says.
By Paul Day