Fusion industry suddenly white-hot after US lab breakthrough
With commercialization years away, investors flock to technology’s long-term clean-energy potential
Michl Binderbauer is chief executive of a southern California firm that aims to create almost limitless energy through nuclear fusion, a starry goal that at times struck some prospective investors as futuristic.
That all changed this week.
"We call somebody and we get a meeting immediately. Before some would say this is crazy stuff, no, it’s not for me," said Mr. Binderbauer, chief executive of fusion firm TAE Technologies. The company has raised around $1.2 billion in previous years, and he said it received a flurry of new investor inquiries this week.
The game-changing event for Mr. Binderbauer’s company, and the rest of the fusion industry, was a long-awaited physics breakthrough announced this week by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
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Through a controlled-fusion reaction, the lab for the first time on Dec. 5 achieved net gain, which means it produced more energy than was put in, the Energy Department said Tuesday. Researchers at the lab’s multibillion-dollar National Ignition Facility have been studying nuclear fusion for more than a decade, using lasers to create conditions that cause hydrogen atoms to fuse and release vast amounts of carbon-free energy.
"It feels like a new era has started, the Wright Brothers-moment of fusion," said Heike Freund, chief operating officer for Marvel Fusion, a startup based in Munich that hopes to develop commercially viable fusion power generation. Like the NIF project, Marvel is using lasers to generate enough heat to create fusion.
Before this month’s breakthrough, the energy industry had been riding a wave of clean-tech and climate-focused investing, and fusion-based companies now stand to compete for a bigger slice of that funding. The Fusion Industry Association, an industry group based in Washington, D.C., said fusion-energy companies have raised more than $5 billion in private funding, roughly doubling the amount from a year ago.
"We have an emerging, possible new energy industry based on fusion," said Dennis Whyte, a director at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a founder of Commonwealth Fusion Systems, a fusion-energy startup that last year raised $1.8 billion from investors including Bill Gates and Tiger Global Management.
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The excitement around the discovery is tempered by the reality that commercialization of the process is years if not decades away. Scientists would have to master and refine complex processes and systems before they could move to building a power-generating reactor.
"It’s going to take a while before we see this commercialized," Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said during a press conference Tuesday from Energy Department headquarters in Washington, D.C.
Kim Budil, director of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, said it could take decades to commercialize fusion but that the achievement was a necessary first step that proves fusion could provide energy to a power plant.
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"This is one igniting capsule one time. And to realize commercial fusion energy, you have to do many things," she said.
For example, the National Ignition Facility primarily uses laser technology from the 1980s, which needs to be modernized, Ms. Budil said. Meanwhile, the process for building the target that ignites the fuel capsule is complex and time-consuming and will need to be simplified to become easily repeatable to produce many fusion ignition events a minute, she said.
Adam Stein, director for nuclear energy and innovation at the Breakthrough Institute, a California-based research center, compared the successful experiment to the first photovoltaic cell that made electricity.
"There were hundreds of them before that didn’t work," Mr. Stein said. "But at some point, the first one that worked crossed that threshold, and that was still several steps away from a commercial solar power plant."
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Nuclear fusion occurs when two light atomic nuclei merge to form a single heavier one. That process releases huge amounts of energy, no carbon emissions and limited radioactivity. Fusion reactions take place in a state of matter called plasma—a hot charged gas made of ions and free-moving electrons—and require temperatures exceeding 100 million degrees Celsius to enable the nuclei to overcome their mutual electric repulsion and collide.
Companies are pursuing different designs for fusion reactors, but most rely on fusion that takes place in plasma confined by powerful magnets.
While the experiment at the national lab used lasers to create what is called inertial confinement, magnetic confinement projects are considered the more likely technology to commercialize first. They haven’t yet achieved net gain, but they have achieved more sustained, high temperature fusion reactions. The magnets might also have other commercial applications, which has attracted investors.
"It allows for a consistent production of heat, which is much more easily translatable into making electricity in the future," Mr. Stein said.
Tammy Ma, a plasma physicist who worked on the successful experiment at Livermore, said private companies have invested more heavily in magnetic fusion and that inertial confinement is a bit further behind technologically as a result.
A number of big names are backing fusion research. Google parent Alphabet Inc. and Chevron Corp. are among TAE’s early investors, and Munich-based Marvel is part of an industrial consortium that includes Siemens Energy, laser maker Trumpf and French technology company Thales among others.
Anika Stein, a consultant and co-founder of the German-American fusion startup Focused Energy Inc., said the achievement at NIF was "the event of the century" that has completely changed the debate about fusion power.
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Europe has lagged behind the U.S. in public funding for fusion research. Startups are also hindered in Europe by poor funding infrastructure and rules that make it harder to form companies than in the U.S.
But Ms. Stein, who is working with the EU to develop a program to help finance fusion research and development, said the NIF demonstration has changed the investment landscape around the world.
"The question is no longer whether it is possible to create energy with fusion. The question has shifted to how we can make fusion so efficient that we can operate a power plant with this technology," she said.