Fusion Energy Might Power the Grid by the 2030s

Article By : Maurizio Di Paolo Emilio

An FIA study reveals the fusion industry is becoming more optimistic that fusion energy will be accessible to the grid by the 2030s.

Fusion energy businesses obtained $2.83 billion in new financing in the last year, an increase of 139% from 2021, according to the second annual survey from the Fusion Industry Association (FIA). This data shows the industry is becoming more optimistic that fusion power will be accessible to the grid by the 2030s, according to the FIA.

The number of participating private enterprises this year also increased to 33 from 23 in 2021.

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Six participating companies have collectively raised more than $200 million, the FIA reported. Commonwealth Fusion Systems raised $1.8 billion, and Helion Energy raised $500 million.

The sixth Helion prototype reactor, called Trenta, was finished in 2020. Helion is currently constructing the seventh, called Polaris, while simultaneously planning the eighth, Antares. Polaris is anticipated to be the first fusion device that can produce more energy than it consumes, according to Helion’s plans.

In addition to making quick progress, Helion is gaining from local expertise. For example, it is constructing Polaris in Everett, Washington, close to Boeing’s largest factories, where it can take advantage of a community of precision workers and engineers.

Graph showing the location of fusion energy centers
Figure 1: Location of Fusion Centers (Source: FIA Report)

Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS) was spun out of MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center to leverage decades of fusion research experience combined with the innovation and speed of the private sector.

The FIA’s survey found electricity generation to be the most important market, followed by off-grid energy, hydrogen, and clean fuels.

Fusion’s race

Nuclear fusion is receiving a lot of funding. The largest businesses operating in this sector are certain that a true revolution will soon occur after raising billions of dollars from several investors like Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos.

Existing nuclear power plants that use fission to generate energy emit finite amounts of radioactive waste, whereas fusion, which involves combining hydrogen atoms to create helium, offers endless electricity with no carbon emissions. More time is required, however, to study the technology.

The years 2021 and 2022 have been crucial for technological development—and it will be imperative to see how fusion progressively leaves the labs and enters the marketplace in the years to come.

The FIA’s second annual survey sought to emphasize the largest businesses, or at the very least those that replied to the association’s survey, in order to produce the most comprehensive picture of the fusion industry.

As FIA CEO Andrew Holland reports, this year saw the first instance of a controlled “burning plasma” at the National Ignition Facility in California, as well as record energy output from the Joint European Torus in Oxford, and high-temperature plasma confinement durations at KSTAR in South Korea and EAST in China.

Private funding entering the business

Picture of Andrew Holland, CEO of the FIA
Andrew Holland (Source: FIA)

Privately funded fusion companies in the FIA also made significant strides, with Commonwealth Fusion Systems in Massachusetts demonstrating the world’s strongest magnet, Helion in Washington achieving plasma temperatures above 100 million degrees, Tokamak Energy in the U.K. accomplishing the precise compression of a plasma, and General Fusion in Canada demonstrating the ability to operate at high plasma temperatures.

Now that these benchmarks have been reached, private funding is entering the fusion business, enabling it to create test devices that will demonstrate the viability of fusion energy. The private industry has attracted new investments totaling over $2.8 billion, raising the overall amount of private investment to over $4.7 billion, according to the FIA study.

The FIA also noted an additional $117 million in grants and other government support this year—more than tripling the industry’s previous investment in only one year.

With the help of this investment, fusion firms will be able to quickly construct the pilot plants necessary to demonstrate that fusion energy is ready for commercialization.

Governments must take a genuine partner role in this endeavor as fusion advances from the lab to the marketplace. According to Holland, there should not be “competition” between fusion methods that are publicly and privately sponsored. True partnerships must be formed via public- and private-sector funding. Governments will need to provide the infrastructure and educate the workforce to facilitate the fusion energy revolution while the private sector constructs the power plants.

U.S. government commits $50M to fusion energy

Last month, the U.S. Department of Energy (DoE) announced the government would spend as much as $50 million on a fusion-development program, as authorized in the Energy Act of 2020.

“This program will support for-profit entities, who may team with national laboratories, universities and others to meet major technical and commercialization milestones toward the successful design of a fusion pilot plant (FPP) that will help bring fusion toward technical and commercial viability,” the DoE told the press.

Geopolitical investment in fusion may contribute to long-term peace, Holland said: “Fusion energy should offer the foundation for prosperity, safety and security if we make the essential investments today.”

Graph showing target markets for fusion energy
Figure 2: Target markets (Source: FIA Report)
Graph outlining progression of fusion companies
Figure 3: Fusion companies (Source: FIA Report)

Several markets eyed

The vast majority of businesses reflected in the FIA’s survey are primarily concerned with electricity generation.

However, most of them reported at least two additional potential markets for their technologies. The most frequent of these are space and marine propulsion. There is also considerable interest in using fusion to produce hydrogen, clean fuels, or off-grid power, in addition to electricity for the grid.

The survey concluded that expectations are still the same as they were in 2017 and that the substantial majority of businesses anticipate fusion to power the grid sometime in 2030.

Despite the advancements, there is still work to be done in some areas, such as the creation of a more diverse workforce, to include the likes of physicists and thermal engineers, the FIA said.

 

This article was originally published on EE Times.

Maurizio Di Paolo Emilio has a Ph.D. in Physics and is a Telecommunications Engineer. He has worked on various international projects in the field of gravitational waves research designing a thermal compensation system, x-ray microbeams, and space technologies for communications and motor control. Since 2007, he has collaborated with several Italian and English blogs and magazines as a technical writer, specializing in electronics and technology. From 2015 to 2018, he was the editor-in-chief of Firmware and Elettronica Open Source. Maurizio enjoys writing and telling stories about Power Electronics, Wide Bandgap Semiconductors, Automotive, IoT, Digital, Energy, and Quantum. Maurizio is currently editor-in-chief of Power Electronics News and EEWeb, and European Correspondent of EE Times. He is the host of PowerUP, a podcast about power electronics. He has contributed to a number of technical and scientific articles as well as a couple of Springer books on energy harvesting and data acquisition and control systems.

 

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  1. bob Whitcombe says:

    I prefer my ads to say upfront they are ads. Passing off Science Fiction as an EETimes article only degrades EETImes. You can tell the author was reaching when they point to a US investment of $50M in Fusion research as indicative of how close fusion is.