Fusion Soon-ish

New materials, techniques, and fuels could speed the arrival of clean, abundant fusion energy

Corey S. Powell
Sep 24 · 22 min read

By Corey S. Powell

With steampunk flair, fusion startup General Fusion in Burnaby, Canada, is betting on an unconventional, mechanically enabled approach to the coveted goal of controlled nuclear fusion for energy production. (Picture courtesy of General Fusion)

THE MOONSHOT Generating energy by way of nuclear fusion has been a technological dream for some 80 years, but its realization always has seemed to be over the next hill. Fusion’s traits, especially its promise of abundant and cheap energy with no carbon footprint, make it particularly attractive in an era of global warming and decarbonization. A cadre of driven engineers and entrepreneurs are betting that the current pace of technological advance and a transforming energy economy will finally bring fusion into the energy landscape.

THE PHILANTHROPY OPPORTUNITY Progressing from a fusion energy concept into research and engineering stages to prototype building and testing phases, let alone to the demonstration plant and commercial phase, ultimately requires multi-billion-dollar bets. Philanthropic and impact investing can help accelerate innovators along that pathway and could also support advocacy campaigns to increase government investment, not only for big international science projects, but for fusion startups. The prize — low-cost, reliable and carbon-neutral energy produced from fusion — is worth pursuing.

Nuclear fusion: It’s the ultimate energy source. Fusion powers the Sun and all the other stars. It is what makes the sunshine that powers photosynthesis, the basis of the planet’s entire food chain. Fusion reactions generate zero emissions and minimal radiation. And the hydrogen that fuels them is the most abundant element in nature. “It’s the universe’s choice, right? It’s how we got here,” says Bob Mumgaard, the CEO of Commonwealth Fusion Systems, an energy startup in Cambridge, Mass.

Mumgaard’s goal is to bring fusion power to you and everyone you know. It’s what the planet needs, he says. Right now, 67% of the world’s electricity supply comes from the burning of fossil fuels. Decarbonizing the economy and reducing the impact of climate change will require adopting a different way to generate more than 15 trillion of the 25 trillion watt-hours of electricity used globally each year. Fusion has the potential to fill that void.

Renewable solar and wind energy also satisfy the zero-carbon requirement, but clouds, darkness, and windless days impose obstacles to their growth. In the absence of a breakthrough in storage technology (see The Moonshot Catalog article “Better Batteries or Climate Bust”), renewables need to be paired with a steady or “baseload” energy source to keep enough current flowing at all times. Even with an all-out push, renewables alone will not be enough. According to one recent study, the baseload will have to account for at least 20% of the electricity supply to keep the grid stable. And the options for supplying this baseload are severely limited.

Scratch fossil fuels off the list and you’re left with three choices. You could expand hydropower, which would require building a huge number of environmentally destructive dams. You could build new nuclear reactors, making use of modern, much safer reactor designs, but they may still face the same economic and political resistance that has blocked new construction since the 1970s (see The Moonshot Catalog article “Nuclear Power Gets a Redo”). Or you could side with Mumgaard and work furiously on option #3: wrangling fusion power out of the lab into a prominent place in the energy landscape.

If that project sounds familiar, it should. Fusion’s proponents have been trying to make it practical for decades. But technological innovations and a fast-changing energy economy are now transforming fusion energy from a stalled technology dream into a hot startup bet.

Commonwealth is one of the biggest beneficiaries of this newfound attention, along with General Fusion in Burnaby, Canada, and TAE Technologies in Foothill Ranch, California, the oldest and most established of the private fusion efforts. Some smaller players also are making bids, including Helion Energy in Redmond, Washington, and Tokamak Energy and First Light Fusion, both in Oxfordshire, United Kingdom, adjacent to the U. K.’s national fusion research lab. Aerospace giant Lockheed Martin is in pursuit as well, doing its best impersonation of a fusion startup at its storied Skunk Works facility in Palmdale, California.

All of this activity is injecting momentum into a field that long seemed stuck in neutral. “For a long time, we didn’t know enough scientifically and the technology wasn’t evolved enough,” says Michl Binderbauer, the CEO of TAE. “Now we see that there’s a huge opportunity coming. Our shareholders will reap benefits. And maybe we won’t go down in the history books as the generation who ruined the planet.”

Cracking fusion’s hard nut

The appeal of fusion is directly connected to the tremendous energy density of atomic nuclei. There are two ways to unleash their power: By causing heavy nuclei to split into lighter ones (nuclear fission) or by fusing together lighter nuclei into heavier ones (nuclear fusion). Either approach liberates millions of times as much energy, atom for atom, as the burning of fossil fuels. It’s good physics for the energy sector. And since the nuclear processes involve no combustion, they do not generate climate-changing carbon dioxide or other air pollutants, such as sulfur dioxide or nitrogen oxides.

Splitting heavy nuclei is the easier way to get at nuclear energy. Place enough naturally radioactive uranium atoms together and they will spontaneously split each other apart in chain reactions. That is the principle behind an atomic bomb and, in more controlled fashion, behind every nuclear fission reactor.

Most current fusion efforts use a D-T reaction (left), in which a deuterium nucleus and a tritium nucleus — both isotopes of hydrogen — fuse into a helium nucleus, releasing a neutron and a lot of energy for generating electricity. In envisioned fusion plants (right), the energy liberated by fusion reactions in a reactor heats water into steam, which turns turbines that power an electrical generator. (Illustration sources, left to right: U.S. Department of Energy and MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center)

Fusing light atomic nuclei like hydrogen into heavier ones, in contrast, is anything but spontaneous. Nuclei all have positive electric charges, which cause them to repel each other when they get close together. In a hydrogen bomb, it takes the blast of a fission bomb to momentarily overcome that repulsion. In the sun, it takes the crushing gravitational pressure from 2 billion billion billion tons of mass to keep the reactions going steadily. But if you could make it work steadily on Earth, too, fusion would match the tremendous efficiency of fission without producing long-lived radioactive byproducts. You also wouldn’t need to mine and process uranium fuel; the proposed fusion reactions run on heavy forms of hydrogen, or on a mix of ordinary hydrogen and low-cost boron.

The first step toward achieving fusion on demand is to heat the hydrogen fuel to millions of degrees. At such temperatures, the gas turns into a plasma — a soup of electrically charged nuclei and electrons. The next step is finding a way to keep that plasma from instantly dispersing, since no physical container can withstand such heat. In 1938, physicist Arthur Kantrowitz and aerodynamics expert Eastman Jacobs at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in Virginia (today, NASA’s Langley Research Center) had a prescient insight for overcoming that problem. “You could confine, we thought, a fusion plasma with a magnetic field,” Kantrowitz recalled in a 2006 interview. Plasma has an electrical charge, he realized, so it could be trapped behind the field, unable to escape.

Kantrowitz and Jacobs built a ring-shaped electromagnet about the size of dump-truck tire, to test their idea. Although their device did not approach the plasma temperatures and densities needed to trigger fusion reactions, it established the template for all of the fusion experiments that followed. It also established another precedent. Langley provided just $5,000 to fund the research, and then abruptly pulled the plug because the experiment did not align with the lab’s focus on aeronautics. That was the first of many fusion research heartbreaks to come.

Start. Stop. Repeat.

In the decades since, engineers have repeatedly felt that fusion was within their grasp, only to see it slip away. In 1958, a team at Los Alamos National Laboratory sparked the first controlled fusion reaction, but their magnetic field was too unstable to produce a workable reactor. Since its founding in 1977, the Department of Energy has cumulatively provided a bit over $14 billion for fusion research — enough support to catalyze significant technological advances but not enough to produce a true breakthrough.

With the societal mandate to decarbonize energy production making the need for fusion more urgent than ever, the federal strategy appears to be heading in the wrong direction. For 2020, the Trump administration requested $403 million for the DOE fusion program, a cut of $161 million from the year before. For context, the total DOE budget request is $35 billion, and includes $1.3 billion on nuclear fission research, along with $1 billion for fossil-fuel investigations.

We’ve been here before. A particularly painful missed opportunity came in the late 1980s, when fusion scientists in the United States proposed the construction of the Compact Ignition Tokamak (CIT). (A tokamak is a type of doughnut-shaped magnetic bottle — a descendent of the Kantrowitz and Jacobs device — that was initially developed in the Soviet Union in the 1950s.) The CIT was designed to address the two biggest difficulties facing fusion: plasma stability and energy consumption. A hot plasma tends to wriggle out of its magnetic field in a fraction of a second; that puts an end to the fusion reactions. Generating the field and heating the plasma also consumes a lot of energy; a fusion reactor is useless unless it creates more energy than it uses.

“We were going to build a machine that we thought would achieve two to several times as much fusion power out as heating power in,” says physicist David Hill, who worked on the CIT project. The initial budget goal was a modest $300 million, about $750 million in current dollars. As the engineers factored in more realistic estimates for the design and construction, the projected cost rose. Then scientific and government critics started to question the machine’s entire concept. “They said, ‘You don’t really fully understand it. You’re too optimistic’,” Hill recalls. Eventually the government abandoned the proposal, downgrading it into a research project.

Ironically, the doubters were half right, but in completely the wrong way. “The people who said we didn’t really understand the energy confinement were correct. Since then we’ve learned a lot more, and it turns out the Compact Ignition Tokamak probably would have worked more than twice as well than we thought,” Hill says.

On the road to ITER.

The CIT project might have come to a disappointing end, but it has proven to be a useful teacher. Many of its lessons are helping to guide ITER (formerly the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor), a massive international fusion reactor currently under construction in the south of France. Hill is a major contributor to ITER in his role as the director of the largest magnetic fusion research project in the US, the DIII-D National Fusion Facility, operated by General Atomics. DIII-D has served as a testbed for many of the design elements and plasma-control techniques that ultimately will be incorporated in ITER. When running at full power, ITER should continously put out about 500 megawatts of energy.

The heart of the DIII-D National Fusion Facility, which is operated by General Atomics for the U.S. Department of Energy, is a doughnut-shaped chamber — the tokomak — ringed by powerful electromagnets that can confine high-temperature plasmas. (Image source: U.S. Department of Energy)

“We’re looking to produce about 10 times as much fusion energy as it [takes] to heat the plasma,” Hill says. Thirty years of experiments at the DIII-D facility explains why he can say that so much more confidently than he could in the CIT days.

With ITER taking shape at its 440-acre site near the French town of Saint-Paul-lès-Durance, the fusion hopes of the 1950s and 1980s are back on track…sort of. One big caveat is that ITER is a deliberate, slow-motion collaboration between 34 participating nations: the United States, Russia, China, India, Japan, South Korea, and the members of the European Union. Work on ITER began in 2007. The machine is now 60% built, but it will not be completed until 2025. Then it will go through a long test period before becoming fully operational around 2035.

Another issue is funding. ITER has a total estimated cost of $22 billion, but that covers all the aspects of the sprawling project, trickling out over three decades. “If we had more money, we could do things faster,” says Tony Donné, program manager for EUROfusion (a consortium that oversees Europe’s fusion research and directs R&D for ITER). It’s one of the fusion saga’s most oft-repeated laments.

Another constraint is that the international nature of ITER has locked its planners into a consensus-driven, low-risk approach. The reactor uses a familiar tokamak design, just like DIII-D and most of the other major research fusion machines. It will also run on what physicists have determined is the simplest, easiest fuel for a fusion reactor: not plain hydrogen, but a blend of hydrogen’s two heavier isotopes, deuterium and tritium (D-T).

A deuterium-tritium mix yields more fusion reactions at significantly lower temperatures than pure hydrogen fuel. Even so, D-T fusion still requires temperatures above 100 million degrees Celsius for the nuclei to hit each other hard enough to fuse. Using deuterium and tritium also contributes significantly to the operational complexity of the fusion reactor.

Deuterium is ubiquitous in nature but it makes up only 0.02% of the hydrogen in ordinary water; it must be methodically separated out using a mix of heat and chemical reactions. Tritium is more problematic. It has to be synthesized through artificial nuclear reactions and it is radioactive, with a half-life of 12 years. Worst of all, the D-T reaction spits out neutrons that are challenging to capture. Some of them will leak into the inner parts of the reactor, gradually turning the materials there brittle and radioactive. Over time, spent components will have to be swapped out and disposed of carefully.

Even if ITER is a smashing success, it comes with another big qualification: It will not lead directly to a fusion energy power plant. Rather, the point of ITER is to embody the state of the art of fusion energy research and prove that a deuterium-tritium plasma reactor can generate power stably and reliably “The successful operation of ITER will be very important to secure a higher budget for the next stage of this research,” Donné says.

“We’re looking to produce about 10 times as much fusion energy as it [takes] to heat the plasma.” — David Hill, Director DIII-D National Fusion Facility.

“If ITER is successful, then all the parties might say, ‘Okay, now we’re each going to build a DEMO reactor [of our own]. You’d get a race that could speed up the process. I think that would be good,” he says. Even so, based on the current pace of ITER’s progress, any DEMO reactors won’t be taking shape until the 2040s at the earliest. And that would push any ITER-based commercial fusion power all the way out into the 2050s.

Smaller, cheaper fusion

ITER’s bureaucratic pace is too slow to help with the quick, severe cuts in carbon emissions needed to limit global warming to less than 2°C above the preindustrial average, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. It is also too slow to attract the investment capital needed to get started now on exploring ways to commercialize fusion energy. These two hard realities have spawned a parallel universe of private fusion research, populated with physics entrepreneurs who are convinced they can drastically accelerate the timetable for turning fusion into something that puts electricity into billions of homes. The different players agree on the need for speed, but they disagree sharply on the best means of achieving it.

Commonwealth Fusion Systems, started in 2017 by a group of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers, was founded on the concept that ITER has the right idea, and is merely too big and lumbering in its execution. CEO Bob Mumgaard got his inspiration as a graduate student in an MIT class taught by plasma physicist Dennis Whyte, who had him work on a concept for a radically cheaper, downsized fusion reactor. That concept, called ARC (affordable, robust, compact), also inspired Mumgaard and Whyte to create a company that could make it a reality.

Electromagnets made with superconducting materials known as ReBCO (rare-earth barium copper oxide), like this experimental device, have opened ways to shrink fusion reactors and to speed the development of commercial fusion energy. (Image Source: National Science Foundation; Florida State University; Stephen Bilenky)

“Our approach is to take all the well-established plasma physics that we have in tokamaks and try to make the scale smaller,” Mumgaard says. The key to downsizing the reactor is controlling the plasma with powerful, high-temperature superconducting magnets, specifically ones made with a material class called rare-earth barium copper oxide, or ReBCO. Gram for gram, superconducting magnets are much stronger than the conventional magnets used in ITER, but until the ReBCO-based magnets became available, no superconducting materials could handle the intense fields needed to hold together a fusion plasma.

By using superconducting magnets, Commonwealth intends to build a reactor just 1/65th the total volume of ITER. Going smaller should make the machine cheaper and further improvements in magnetic materials should allow even more shrinking and cost cutting. “In two years, we’ll have completed a series of tests all the way up to full-scale, trying out the new high-temperature superconducting magnets at very high magnetic field,” Mumgaard says. From there, he hopes to construct a demonstration version of ARC called SPARC (the “smallest possible” ARC), ready to begin operating around 2025. SPARC, in turn, could lead to a full-fledged, commercial-scale ARC reactor.

“That puts us in the early part of the 2030s. Of course, we want to go faster if we can,” Mumgaard says. A lot of that schedule depends on funding. So far, Commonwealth has raised a healthy $115 million, including an investment from the Bill Gates-backed Breakthrough Energy Ventures. That’s enough money to support the magnet research, but probably not enough to build SPARC. Even with its low-cost designs, ARC technology will have a price tag in the billions of dollars, and so also would almost certainly require a major commercial partner.

If built, the proposed SPARC fusion reactor could look like this artist’s rendition. Commonwealth Fusion Systems, the company developing SPARC, hopes the facility will host the world’s first controlled fusion process to produce more energy than it takes to run it. (Visualization courtesy of MIT and its Plasma Science and Fusion Center).

The schedule also depends on continued improvement of the superconducting magnetic materials. The core technology of ARC resembles ITER, but the development philosophy is different. “We’re taking bigger steps than ITER would ever take, because we’ve got the okay from our stakeholders,” Mumgaard says, before acknowledging his debt to the deep base of knowledge he is building on. “We wouldn’t be where we are without ITER,” he noted.

Commonwealth also has its own competition in the form of Tokamak Energy in the UK. David Kingham, the executive vice chairman of this rival, describes an approach similar to Commonwealth’s, using superconducting magnets to shrink the size and cost of the reactor. He cites two important differences: His company uses a different type of tokamak, shaped more like a sphere than a doughnut, to hold the fusion plasma. And unlike Commonwealth, “we have built and successfully operated three prototype tokamaks in quick succession,” he says dryly.

Tokamak Energy just raised £50 million in funding (about $60 million) to support upgrades of the company’s current machine, the ST40 (“ST” stands for spherical tokamak). Kingham aims to reach a plasma temperature of 100 million degrees Celsius next March. From there, the process sounds familiar: more tests of superconducting magnets followed by a prototype commercial reactor by around 2025. This all depends on securing the funding, of course. Kingham is coy on the total cost. “Well over $100 million, but much less than $10 billion” is how he puts it.

A reactor that runs like a car

Each fusion startup claims it has a clear vision of why its approach is best, and why the other approaches are flawed — although there is also plenty of mutual admiration in this tight-knit field. At Canada’s General Fusion, chief scientist Michel Laberge argues that the best approach to fusion energy is to give the magnets a mechanical boost. That thought has led him far away from the usual tokamak approach since he founded the company in 2002.

“We are all out for ITER to keep going on, doing their work. However, we don’t think they will produce a practical power plant at the end,” he says. “What we want to do instead is make a magnetized plasma and put that in a big bucket full of liquid metal.” General Fusion zeroed in on a mix of lithium and lead as the best way to manage the fusion reactions.

Laberge then lays out his vision of what will happen when he switches on his reactor. The company will start by filling a spherical chamber with the molten metal blend and spin it to create a gap in the middle. A D-T fusion plasma then will be injected into the gap, and a magnetic field in the liquid metal will hold the plasma in place.

“ We don’t have superconducting coils and particle beams and all those complicated things. It’s all mechanics, piston rings, like the stuff you have under the hood of your car. It’s much less expensive. We have a good cost advantage.” — Michel Laberge, General Fusion’s chief scientist

It’s a highly mechanical approach, Laberge proudly notes: “We don’t have superconducting coils and particle beams and all those complicated things. It’s all mechanics, piston rings, like the stuff you have under the hood of your car. It’s much less expensive. We have a good cost advantage.”

An engineer works on a prototype plasma injector for General Fusion’s unconventional reactor design. Company founder Michel Laberge envisions that the injectors will transform the hydrogen fuel into superhot plasma before injecting it into a magnetic field generated by a whirling liquid-metal mix in a “big bucket.” (Image courtesy of General Fusion Energy)

All of these claims are theoretical, however, because General Fusion does not yet have a working prototype. The company has progressed only as far as testing the individual components, including building a 14-piston version (see top image) of the eventual 500-piston compression system, and doing detailed modeling. A bevy of investors, including Jeff Bezos, have sustained the company so far, and last year General Fusion got a substantial boost from a $37 million investment by the Canadian government. Still, building a machine to integrate all of the component technologies into a single system will require significantly more funding.

Even if the team can survive long enough to build and test prototype, the next phase would be centered on demonstration machine that would take about 4 years to build at a cost of a few hundred million dollars, according to Laberge. If it’s successful, he would then need a few billion dollars to produce a pilot power plant. Based on computer simulations, he estimates that General Fusion’s mechanical approach to fusion could ultimately generate power at about 4 cents per kilowatt-hour, in the same ballpark as the current cost of power from coal or natural gas. The average cost of a residential kilowatt-hour now is about 13 cents.

Donné, who has helped advise General Fusion, offers a note of caution. “I don’t see any big showstoppers there, but I also don’t see it as a process that will be working 10 years from now,” he says. The company’s competitors are predictably more blunt, warning that compressing the fusion plasma with perfect symmetry, over and over, is a much harder problem than Laberge admits. He acknowledges that his approach to fusion is unconventional, which he considers part of its strength in the overall quest to harness fusion power. “The more shots we have at the goal, the more chances we have to score,” he says.

Better than the sun?

In its earlier incarnation as Tri-Alpha Energy, TAE was the first of the private fusion companies, established way back in 1998. In the two decades since, the company has weathered multiple financial strains and raised more than $600 million, including contributions from the late Paul Allen, a cofounder of Microsoft who became a prominent philanthropist. And all of that effort is supporting a fusion venture that defies some of the most basic rules of how fusion energy is supposed to work.

Unlike General Fusion, TAE dispenses entirely with the idea of bottling a plasma in an enclosed magnetic field. Instead, the company plans to contain the fusion reactions in a “field reversed configuration,” an approach championed by TAE co-founder Norman Rostoker, who died in 2014. In this approach, a hot spinning plasma generates its own magnetic field, pulling itself into a shape resembling a smoke ring. The plasma is energized, rotated, and stabilized by particle beams shot into the plasma, borrowing techniques that have more in common with physics experiments like the Large Hadron Collider than with ITER. “You go out to an average guy that works on tokamaks, they would not understand these plasmas,” says Michl Binderbauer, who is both Rostoker’s protégé and the company’s CEO. Among the fusion startups, only Helion Energy in Washington adopts a broadly similar approach.

TAE Technologies’ current test reactor, depicted on the left, uses a tubular magnetic field to confine a fusion plasma. It is a proof of concept for a future commercial-scale reactor. With the help of plasma generators like the one shown on the right, smoke-ring-like plumes of hydrogen-boron fuel will be collided in the central reaction chamber, where the resulting plasma should undergo fusion. (Images courtesy of TAE Technologies)

Then TAE goes a step farther by rejecting the deuterium-tritium fuel endorsed by every other proposed fusion-energy machine. In fact, the company repudiates the entire idea of trying to mimic the energy cycle in the sun. Instead, Binderbauer and his team aim to power their reactor by fusing ordinary hydrogen with beryllium, a low-density metal. The mix is known as pb11: “p” for proton, the single particle that constitutes the nucleus of each hydrogen atom, and “b11” for beryllium-11, the specific isotope of that element used in the fuel. The end product of this fuel’s fusion reaction is three helium nuclei (each with two protons and two neutrons), also known as alpha particles and hence the company name Tri-Alpha.

Binderbauer is convinced that the material challenges of deuterium-tritium fusion are more challenging than fusion advocates usually admit. Tritium is not only radioactive, it is also tricky to handle in large quantities because it is chemically identical to regular hydrogen. That inescapable trait could create regulatory issues for eventual fusion power plants. Neutron-irradiated equipment from a D-T adds another radiation issue to address. If you switch to pb11 fuel, these problems go away. Unlike neutrons, the charged alpha particles that spew from the pb11 reactions can be absorbed harmlessly, making TAE’s process nearly radiation-free (although even pb11 produces a trace of neutrons). Theoretically, maintenance and nuclear regulatory issues become largely irrelevant as a result.

Binderbauer sees other serious advantages to the TAE approach. A field-reversed configuration reactor doesn’t have the demanding magnet needs of ITER or the Commonwealth approach, nor does it require the precise mechanical cycling of General Fusion’s proposed liquid-metal reactor. But the catch — and with fusion there is always a catch — is that achieving pb11 fusion requires even more extreme temperatures. To achieve fusion, TAE will have to heat its protons and beryllium nuclei to temperatures around 3 billion degrees, more than 10 times hotter than is needed for D-T fusion and a temperature far beyond anything yet achieved.

TAE’s current test reactor, named Norman in honor of Rostoker, just completed 2 years of experiments, validating the company’s unusual plasma-confinement approach and reaching temperatures beyond 30 million degrees. Norman is now being torn down to make way, money permitting, for its successor, a $200 million machine called Copernicus that could be completed by around 2023. This is where Binderbauer wants to prove that he can achieve the inferno necessary for full-on pb11. Next in the plan is the “$2 billion-ish” Da Vinci machine, a viable fusion generator that — as in all such schemes — would be built in conjunction with industrial partners who could begin to mass produce fusion power for the world.

Beyond TAE are the outliers of the fusion world, most notably First Light Fusion and Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works. First Light is currently running small-scale tests of a completely different approach to fusion: It plans to shoot projectiles at a target containing deuterium-tritium fuel, causing it to implode and to trigger fusion reactions. The concept resembles that of the National Ignition Facility (NIF), a $4 billion bomb-research machine at Lawrence Livermore National Labopratory which, despite its name, failed to achieve fusion ignition even after years of effort. NIF relies on multiple powerful laser beams simultaneously impinging on a target of fusion fuel and was never intended as a testbed for fusion power technology. (First Light did not respond to requests for an interview.)

Lockheed Martin’s secretive “compact fusion reactor” project raised eyebrows in 2014, when a press release promised that the company would deliver a test reactor small enough to fit on a truck in 1 year and a full functional prototype in 5 years. What little has been revealed about the design indicates it relies on a tightly bent magnetic field to concentrate the plasma, an approach that other researchers in the field have found untenable. Lockheed Martin has provided limited additional information since then, and no longer promises a specific timetable. In response to inquiries, a company spokesperson wrote that “we are hard at work and, as such, not entertaining media interviews…This work is not easy but our small team is making progress.”

Power to the people

Looming over the innovations and advances in fusion are the much more immediate advances in carbon-free wind and solar energy. Fusion’s proponents argue that a high-density, continuous, zero-carbon power source will remain essential no matter how far renewable energy expands. “We have to decarbonize electricity all the way to zero, and we have to decarbonize all of the industry, and we have to do that across the entire globe,” Mumgaard says. “There’s so many niches in energy, and the niches are huge.” For now, the scale of wind and solar is also limited by the difficulties of long-distance transmission and grid-scale electrical storage.

“The first step — to show that [fusion] energy capability — is within reach. It’s a question of will and organization. That’s what’s lacking, and it’s bizarre. It’s only the future of the planet, right?” — Michl Binderbauer, TAE Technologies

Boosting Binderbauer’s frustration, some of the U.S. government investments in fusion energy have been almost comically small. Earlier this year, the Department of Energy announced a program to promote public-private partnerships in fusion energy. The grants range from $20,000 to $50,000, hardly more than the cost of filling out the paperwork. In Binderbauer’s view, a far more useful type of partnership would simply be to provide modest but meaningful federal funding for innovative fusion research: “I’m not asking you guys for half a billion dollars. If you give me $50 million I can credibly go back to the investors and say ‘Give me $500 million’ on the strength of the government endorsing it as viable.”

Private investors already have sunk a total of about $1 billion into the various startup fusion programs. With a little nudge, many more would surely step forward, prompted by the same basic motivations driving the fusion-energy entrepreneurs. Michel Laberge puts it bluntly: “We want to save the world, and we want to get stinking rich.”

Corey S. Powell is a freelance science writer, podcaster, and the former editor-in-chief of Discover Magazine.

The Moonshot Catalog

A to-do list of big doable projects for a forward-looking future

Corey S. Powell

Written by

Science writer, editor, podcaster

The Moonshot Catalog

A to-do list of big doable projects for a forward-looking future

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