Governments urged to do more as ambitious timeline for fusion set at FUSION24 conference

Article by Aniqah Majid

FUSION24 included a visual feedback display where illustrator Rebecca Osborne captured the thoughts of attendees on the future of fusion

FUSION has garnered something of a reputation in the energy industry for always being 30 years away. However, scientists and engineers from around the world gathered at The Science Museum in London yesterday to be told of ambitious plans to get “fusion electrons on the grid by the 2030s”.   

The UK Atomic Energy Authority’s (UKAEA) FUSION24 showcased the goals and vision of the international fusion community, highlighting recent advancements, including the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s (LLNL) fourth net energy gain from a nuclear fusion reaction.

The California-based facility, which uses an inertial confinement fusion process, has consistently broken records since it was commissioned in 2009, reaching 3.88 MJ in energy output in July, more than double the energy that was put in.

Nevertheless, Tammy Ma, the lead for the Inertial Fusion Energy Initiative at LLNL, said making the giant leap to commercial-scale for the lab’s National Ignition Facility (NIF) and those like it would only be possible with increased levels of investment.

She said, “For NIF, we are trying to push up to much higher gains in the next couple years, but it is science so I cannot give a prediction on when that will happen.

“In terms of building a full-scale power plant, it depends on overall investment, and it will take partnership between the public and private sector. It is crude, but progress is measured by the amount of money that goes into the system.”

Show me the money

With multi-million-dollar lasers and tritium breeding facilities on many shopping lists, heavy investment made up the bulk of conversation at the showcase.  

A panel discussion in the afternoon invited fusion investors to discuss what they are looking for from companies and how they see the market improving.

Phil Larochelle, a partner at Breakthrough Energy Ventures, said: “The only way that things scale is if markets are willing to invest for them to scale up.”

His firm is taking a different approach to conventional investing. Instead of foreseeable returns, Breakthrough is allowing space for fusion companies to scale over the long term, relying on peer-reviewed research from those companies to manage risk.

He said: “The funds we have created to invest in fusion companies are 20-year funds, so we are looking for pathways where we can get returns on investment and open the timescale for companies to get fusion electrons on the grid by the 2030s.”

The fusion companies that Breakthrough has invested in include Zap Energy, Commonwealth Fusion Systems, and Type One Energy, who are expecting to begin construction on a stellarator fusion power reactor in Tennessee, US at the beginning of 2025.

The panel also discussed the funding incentives for fusion and its role in existing industries like steelmaking.

Rory Scott Russell, the head of venture capital at East Alpha, said: “Fusion has unique characteristics, one of those is the high-quality industrial heat output which can be used to decarbonise steel and the petrochemical industry, and not only decarbonise, but bring those industries back on to friendly shores. These could be the first ‘go-to’ markets for the first fusion systems.”

Public investment and recognition

The US has set up a milestone-based cost-share programme for financing fusion, where investors set output targets for companies, with private firms handling risk and the government only putting money in when the targets have been met.

Larochelle said that the equivalent of the programme has been used in fission and appropriated US$2.5bn.

He said: “If you significantly fund programmes like this one, it is going to open the doors for a bunch of private capital that is sitting on the sidelines.”

Andrew Lo, the director at MIT’s laboratory for financial engineering, said: “Governments should be increasing their funding to multiple billions of dollars, which is basic maths when you look at what scaling is going to take.

“Governments play a critical role. In China, where the term of a politician is probably longer than 20 years, what are they doing? They’re doubling down on fusion and investing extraordinary amounts of public money to make it happen. So, I think the younger generation here needs to talk to politicians about dramatically increasing support for fusion energy programmes.”

The UK government is currently looking for engineering and construction partners to build the UK’s much anticipated prototype plant, the Spherical Tokomak for Energy Production (STEP) facility, with contracts set to be awarded by late 2025. For the next two years, the government has put aside £650m as part of its Fusion Futures programme, which aims to support commercialisation efforts and collaboration with international fusion programmes like ITER.

Article by Aniqah Majid

Staff reporter, The Chemical Engineer

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