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Race for commercial fusion picks up pace as private investment grows rapidly

Matt Rooney, head of policy at the IMechE

The race for commercial fusion energy is picking up pace (Credit: Shutterstock)
The race for commercial fusion energy is picking up pace (Credit: Shutterstock)

Nuclear fusion has historically been the preserve of publicly funded national laboratories, but that is beginning to change.

Although the largest slice of fusion R&D funding is concentrated on the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) in France, private-sector investment is also growing rapidly. 

More than 15 fusion-energy start-ups have been created since 2009, including Tokamak Energy and First Light Fusion in the UK. The New York Times recently reported that total private investment in fusion is approaching $2bn. Globally, interest in fusion energy is growing. 

The Canadian company General Fusion has announced that it will build a demonstration plant on the UK Atomic Energy Agency’s Culham site in Oxfordshire to prove its proprietary Magnetized Target Fusion. Meanwhile the British government has recently announced a £220m investment in the conceptual design of a fusion power station – the Spherical Tokamak for Energy Production.

Fusion engineering company Assystem commissioned the IMechE’s Engineering Policy Unit to investigate the sector’s current state and future prospects and produce a report. Fusion Energy: A Global Effort, a UK Opportunity examines the path to commercialisation, including the role for fusion in future energy systems, the cost drivers and potential for cost reduction, and the technical and non-technical challenges to developing fusion plants. 

Fusion’s potential 

Although start-up companies are attempting to accelerate the development of commercial fusion power, it is unlikely to make a substantial contribution to the global energy system until the 2040s at the earliest. The need for fusion must therefore be evaluated according to the energy market 20 or 30 years in the future, rather than that of today. 

Solar and wind will likely dominate electricity systems, but there will also be a demand for low-carbon dispatchable electricity to complement variable renewables and to prevent excessive system costs, which rise supralinearly with an increasing level of intermittent renewable penetration. 

Fusion will therefore compete in a market that includes clean technologies such as: nuclear fission, hydro, bioenergy, geothermal, solar power, marine energy, and large-scale energy storage. With mid-century global energy demand projected to be expanding and increasingly electrified, this market will be very large. 

Fusion could also be complementary to nuclear fission as it may be able to serve countries that, owing to public/political opposition, will not use fission. 

A global race

There is currently a global race to commercialise fusion. This has prompted many start-ups to attempt different approaches to the JET-ITER-DEMO path of using larger and larger tokamaks. The timeline for conventional large tokamak development is unlikely to see a fully commercial fusion-power plant until the 2050s, hence the global push to find alternative ways of speeding up the process.

In the UK, Tokamak Energy believes that its approach of using compact spherical tokamaks with high-temperature superconducting magnets will accelerate the R&D process and improve the future economic viability of fusion through lower investment costs and rapid technological learning. First Light has a new approach to inertial fusion, which aims to create the required temperatures and pressures by compressing the fuel inside a target using a hypervelocity projectile.

Elsewhere in the world, much of the activity is concentrated in Asia and North America. China has ramped up investment, while the US government’s ARPA-E ALPHA programme is funding nine advanced fusion concepts. Each design is small in scale and unconventional, some using proton-boron rather than deuterium-tritium reactions. Each is seeking to provide low-cost energy from fusion through rapid R&D using small devices.

Cost reduction 

A key consideration for those investing in fusion is whether to move ahead with developing a power plant based on more proven technology, or whether to pursue further R&D with the aim of achieving superior performance, which in turn will improve economic viability. 

Technological advances that would improve the competitiveness of fusion include high-flux neutron materials, lower-cost high-temperature superconducting magnets, improved breeding blankets, and higher-efficiency power conversion cycles. 

However, this R&D may be lengthy and delay the roll-out of commercial power plants. At some point, decisions will need to be made between reducing future costs through further R&D and doing so through the more rapid deployment of a mature and proven design that attempts to bring down costs by standardisation and replication. 

In the development programme, this decision could be expressed as: “At what point do we freeze the concept design stage and begin the detailed design and construction of the demonstrator?” 

Building industrial capacity will also be necessary to bring down costs. To maintain a competitive advantage in a field like nuclear fusion, it is important to build up an industrial base of skills, know-how in the key technologies, and supply chains. Current supply chains are focused on research and are immature. They are not yet ready to support commercial deployment anywhere in the world.

When proven and competitive, fusion as a clean technology is likely to be in demand in many countries and many markets. The questions will be: who will be first and which companies will reap the benefits of this technology?


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Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

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