Who does Nuclear Fusion?
We have heard about Nuclear Fusion, the energy source of the future which is clean and limitless, but apart from the research in academia and government institutions, who is interested in this promising field?
In the last years, the investments in nuclear fusion have experienced a huge growth, not only in the well-known ITER project, where an enormous tokamak is being constructed with the promise of achieving nuclear fusion as a viable source of energy in 2050. But also, private investors are really interested in the projects that a bunch of startups are conducting, and so am I.
Why wouldn’t they be interested? They may have read this article:
On what I would really like to focus is the brilliant and hopeful approaches that those startups are conducting to make commercial nuclear fusion a reality. The idea is leveraging the decades of fusion research combined with the innovation and speed of the private sector, supported by the world’s leading investors in breakthrough energy technologies.
The most interesting companies who are conducting promising research on nuclear fusion (or even nuclear fission) are:
- Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS) was born as a spin-off of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Plasma Science and Fusion Center (PSFC), in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Its project SPARC is attracting world’s attention, due to its projected feasibility. SPARC has recovered the old concept of toroidal tokamak, confining plasma more efficiently by reducing its size and increasing the magnetic field. The latter is obtained through magnets made up with new High Temperature Superconductor (HTS) material called Rare Earth Barium Copper Oxide (REBCO), which allows reducing construction costs. Currently, CFS is developing and testing HTS magnet at component scale and finishing its design. For 2021 net energy is projected to be obtained from SPARC, and in 2025 its descendant ARC is thought to be the world’s first fusion power plant. In the figure we can appreciate the comparison in size, magnetic field, and power between SPARC and ITER project.
- TAE Technologies is a Californian company based in Foothill Ranch, focused on aneutronic fusion, which means that most energy is released in form of charged particles as protons or alpha particles. This implies a reduction on problems associated with neutron radiation, which typically escape from confined plasma. Its main approach to nuclear fusion is called Norman, the platform leverages naturally occurring electric current in fusion plasma by injecting neutral beams confining and stabilizing the plasma, using field-reversed configuration (FRC). These twenty-seven meters long and nine meters high fusion platform is the prelude of Copernicus, the final device which is supposed to reach commercial nuclear fusion by 2030.
- General Fusion, the Canadian approach, which is funded by a variety of investors and has attracted Jeff Bezos attention. Its (projected) fusion power plant, based on magnetized target fusion, consists of three components: the plasma injector, an array of pistons and a chamber of spinning liquid metal. The magnetized target fusion is in the mid-ground between magnetic confinement fusion, which works with low-density plasma and long lifespan, and inertial confinement fusion, which consists of high-density plasmas with much shorter lifespan. Consequently, more conventional compression methods such as pistons can be employed. Instead of using magnets to compress plasma, General Fusion device injects a plasma, in the form of a compact toroid as the magnetized target, into a chamber of spinning liquid metal forming a hollow cylinder, which is compressed as required for fusion conditions. Recently, General Fusion has signed an agreement with The UK Atomic Energy Authority to build and operate its Fusion Demonstration Plant at UKAEA’s Culham Campus.
- The British company, Tokamak Energy, as its name indicates, is focused on the compact spherical tokamak, called ST40. As CFS (the company we first talked about), Tokamak Energy use HTS superconductors and a low tokamak radius. The company is proud of having reached in 2018 a plasma temperature of about fifteen million degrees, hotter than the core of sun, and approximating to one hundred million degrees, which is the plasma temperature that fusion between deuterium and tritium needs. In close contact with academia, its aim is proving that fusion power can be a clean and limitless source of energy by 2030.
- Helion Energy, located in Redmond, Washington, is developing magneto-inertial fusion, combining the stability of steady magnetic fusion and the heating of pulsed inertial fusion. In this case, the fuel is deuterium combined with Helium-3, an exceedingly rare and useful type of Helium, which is produce with a new technique that uses a unique fusion process patented by Helion Energy, obtaining it from only Deuterium, found in ordinary tap water.
- Zap Energy, the company’s goal is to reach nuclear fusion without using magnets, stabilizing plasma using sheared flows rather than magnetic fields.
- Lpp Fusion, in New Jersey, is developing a nuclear fusion technology which uses aneutronic hydrogen-boron (pB11) fuel.
- First Light Fusion, spun out from the University of Oxford, is focused on inertial confinement fusion.
- TerraPower, founded by Bill Gates, even if not focused on nuclear fusion, its project is worth mentioning. It consists of a traveling wave reactor (TWR) which could eventually eliminate the need to enrich uranium. The company is also investigating a molten salt reactor.
- NuScale Power, an energy company based in Oregon. Although its project is not about nuclear fusion, it’s remarkably interesting too. They pretend to construct Small Modular Reactors (SMR), fission-based, with low-enriched uranium as a fuel and conventional light water cooling methods.
- The Danish Seaborg Technologies is committed to rethink nuclear fission energy with its compact molten salt reactor design (CMSR).
- Terrestrial Energy, based in Canada, is working on an Integral Molten Salt Reactor design, related with nuclear fission.
- Brilliant Light Power is a company in New Jersey which investigates a new energy source based in the unproven existence of hydrino: an atom of hydrogen where its electron is believed to be found in a level of energy under its ground level.
After exploring different approaches for a new energy source that, for sure, will change the way in which we produce energy, we must remark that nuclear fusion is a viable option that is being investigated and supported by a high skilled group of people in the private sector, as well as in academia and government institutions.
Nevertheless, the quick development of the private companies and its exponentially growing funding, turns them into favorites for reaching the Nuclear Fusion dream first.