Nuclear fusion has long been a graveyard littered with unfulfilled promises. A spectacular breakthrough over recent days at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California does not yet guarantee the world bountiful clean, cheap and safe energy.
It does not get us off the hook on climate change or allow us to dodge the upheaval of net zero by 2050; nor does it alone put the old fossil-based order out of business. But mankind can now replicate the process of the sun and the stars in a laboratory. That is astounding.
A target pellet inside a hohlraum capsule with laser beams entering through openings on either end. The beams compress and heat the target to the necessary conditions for nuclear fusion to occur.Credit:AP
We can plausibly look forward to commercial fusion plants producing the first baseload power for electricity grids by the early to mid-2030s, and possibly slightly sooner.
The question is no longer whether it can be done, but how soon the first commercial start-up can crack the engineering and metallurgy challenges of fusion, and whether innovation can slash costs to the $US50 ($73) per MWh benchmark level needed to transform the international energy landscape.
Barely six months ago, physicists remained deeply sceptical over whether the Lawrence Livermore lab (LLNL) could achieve the magic threshold of one joule of energy for every joule spent in the process, either this decade or in the foreseeable future. Some were calling for the project to be wound down.
Last week, the team in California smashed all previous records, crossing the breakeven ratio by reportedly generating 2.5 megajoules from 2.1 megajoules of power from 192 giant lasers. That is a “gain” rate or “Q” factor of 1.2 from fusing by hydrogen nuclei into a heavier helium. The rule of thumb is that the Q factor needs to reach 10 for the process to become an industrial game-changer.
“If confirmed, it’s fantastic. It shows that the core physics of fusion energy fundamentally works,” said Nicholas Hawker, founder of the UK’s pioneer First Light Fusion near Oxford.
Enormous obstacles remain. The latest breakthrough involved just one burst of fusion. It requires sustained and rapid fire to generate electricity. Omar Hurricane, the chief scientist of the LLNL project, says his team has learnt the hard way how 500bn atmospheres of pressure at the core of the implosion amplifies the slightest impurity in the diamond capsule and leads to wildly fluctuating results. Overcoming this is not easy.
Companies pursuing inertial fusion of different forms include the UK’s First Light, as well as Focused Energy and Xcimer Energy in the US, and Marvel Fusion in Germany.
“The advances being made point to market viability much sooner than expected, within the next 10 years,” said Todd Ditmire, co-founder of Focused Energy. There have been 21 commercial start-ups in fusion energy over the last five years, with a cascade of private funding over recent months following successes by the Livermore lab in 2021. None is yet listed, so the industry remains closed to ordinary investors.
The beauty of the technology is obvious. Fusion releases over 20 million times more energy than the chemical reaction of burning fossil fuels. It is endlessly renewable. “We don’t have meltdowns; we don’t create radioactive waste; and we don’t have nuclear weapons potential,” said Hawker.
First Light Fusion is planning a £570 million ($1 billion) pilot plant generating 60 megawatts though inertial fusion, aiming at commercial production by the early to mid 2030s.
Instead of using lasers as the spark, it uses an electromagnetic launch to fire a projectile at one hundred times the speed of sound into pellets containing the hydrogen isotopes tritium and deuterium. The company’s Target technology amplifies the velocity, creating the extreme temperatures needed to fuse atoms.
‘The advances being made point to market viability much sooner than expected, within the next 10 years.’
The core principle is the same as at Livermore. “There is a direct read-across to our technology since we’re both doing spherical explosions, so this derisks our project,” said Hawker.
The lion’s share of government subsidies over the decades has gone to a parallel technology relying on magnets, above all to the $US20 billion ITER consortium of 35 countries based at Cadarache in France. ITER will use a vast solenoid magnet to contain burning plasma at temperatures reaching 150,000C in a tokamak vacuum chamber.
Its test bed at Culham in Oxfordshire – the Joint European Torus – reached a Q factor of 0.33 in 2021 but has since been outflanked (for now) by the Lawrence Livermore tech.
Hawker’s First Light Fusion hopes to cut costs to $US50 per MWh by producing scarce tritium as a by-product and future fuel for the fusion industry. Tritium sells for $US30,000 a gram.
“All the materials we need exist already in the commercial supply chain. We’re extremely scalable, and we’re going to need hundreds of these plants by the 2040s,” he said.
Commonwealth Fusion Systems, outside Boston, has already raised $US1.8 billion in private finance for a tokamak plant to be in operation by 2025, aiming for a Q factor of 10 by the late 2020s.
Commonwealth Fusion talks big. It dazzled an astonished audience at the Cop26 summit in Glasgow and now plans a planetary rollout blitz of 400MW plants from the middle of the 2030s onwards. “To make a dent in climate change, the plan is to build on the order of 10,000 of these by 2050,” the company told tech website CNET.
Canada’s General Fusion says it aims to build its first commercial power plant in the early 2030s using steam pistons to compress plasma. Zap Energy in Seattle thinks it has the quickest path to commercial viability with a “pinch” technology that relies on electrical currents 10 times the power of a thunderbolt. It thinks that a commercial plant could conceivably be up and running before the end of this decade.
In the end, it comes down to cost. “We don’t have to beat wind and solar because baseload power is extremely valuable. There is going to be a massive unaddressed shortfall in global energy supply,” said Hawker.
The question is whether fusion can undercut the total 24/7 cost of intermittent renewables backed by storage or backed by gas peaker plants with carbon capture – the baseload equivalent – and whether it can undercut nuclear fission reactors once all the decommissioning and safety risks are factored in.
For technology optimists who think it’s possible to decarbonise the global energy system without economic pain and without having to endure the puritan, pauperising regime of deindustrialisation – which could never secure political consent – the fusion coup at Lawrence Livermore is a heartening moment.
Once again, it is the Americans who are actually delivering. I will be cracking a bottle of the best Californian wine.
The Daily Telegraph, London
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