Seventeen private sector international companies seeking to develop and commercialize fusion technology have recently formed the Fusion Industry Association. The Association’s objective is to advocate for policies that would accelerate the race to fusion energy.
Governments have been investing in the development of fusion technology for over 50 years with mixed results. While the prospect of generating limitless energy through fusion has often appeared to be fleeting, recent progress involving high visibility projects has drawn renewed interest in the technology.
The Wendelstein 7-X stellarator reactor in Germany recently reached plasma temperatures and electric fields in the range required for reaching peak performance (see Superconductor Week, Vol 34, No 1). In China, the Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (EAST) reactor reportedly heated hydrogen to a temperature of more than 100 million degrees Celsius, or 212 million degrees Fahrenheit, where hydrogen becomes plasma (see Superconductor Week, Vol 32, No 12). Although its operational date has been postponed, the construction of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) continues on what will be the world’s largest fusion reactor.
Increased Interest in Private Sector Fusion Investment
Accompanying these developments with large, public sector projects has been increased investment in private companies developing fusion technologies. A number of high profile American billionaires have invested in fusion companies, including Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates and Peter Thiel.
“The large public-sector science programs are doing important science that will enable greater understanding of plasma science, which our companies will hope to capitalize on,” commented Fusion Industry Association Executive Director Andrew Holland. “They are helping to drive the global awareness of fusion, and that is always important.”
Fusion Association Announces Three Strategic Priorities
The Fusion Industry Association was founded in September 2017, but went public in November 2018. Holland elaborated on how the organization would advocate for fusion energy friendly polices: “The Fusion Industry Association has three strategic priorities for accelerating fusion energy:
-- Partner with governments for applied fusion research. The private sector should have access to the pathbreaking research that governments have pursued for decades. Likewise, the public sector should be able to benefit from exchanges with private scientists working on fusion;
-- Drive financial support. Sustained financing is needed to accelerate fusion from early-stage research to demonstration levels of energy production. Public-private partnerships that include government support can multiply private financial support by reducing risk;
-- Ensure regulatory certainty, Fusion research, development, and deployment should be subject to appropriate regulation when experiments are built and sited.”
Hudson also discussed funding for the member companies of the Association: “All of our companies are privately funded. Put together, we have raised over $1 billion in private funding, and are actively raising more. We think that private funding adds an important level of market discipline and focus to fusion research.”
USDOE Funds Projects and Enunciates Strategy
The announcement of the Fusion Association’s founding coincided with A U.S. Department of Energy (USDOE) commitment for $36.4 million of funding for 37 research projects at universities, research labs and private industry on a range of topics in fusion energy sciences. The research is designed to help lay the groundwork for the development of nuclear fusion as a future practical energy source. The funded research is focused on high priority challenges to the magnetic confinement of plasma, which is considered to be a pathway toward eventual development of a contained, self-sustaining fusion reaction.
The USDOE also issued a report, which proposes adoption of a national fusion strategy. Besides recommending continued participation in ITER, the report promotes “a national program of accompanying research and technology leading to the construction of a compact pilot plant that produces electricity from fusion at the lowest possible capital cost”
That approach would require up to $200 million in additional annual funding for several decades. It would leverage opportunities presented by new-generation superconducting magnets, reactor materials, simulators, and other relevant technologies. Of particular emphasis from the committee is the advances in high-temperature superconducting magnets which can access higher fields and smaller machines.
The report recommends a U.S. program to prove out high-field large-bore magnets. These are expected to enable faster and less-costly cycles of learning and development than extremely large experiments like ITER, while still benefiting from the knowledge that emerges from those programs.