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Clean and abundant star power
Fusion is considered the holy grail of clean and abundant energy.
A fusion reaction produces nearly four million times more energy than burning fossil fuels (at equal mass). Think about this: one train car of fusion fuel could fulfill the energy needs of the US for a whole year! Fusion fuel is also available. One of the most common fusion fuels, deuterium (a type of hydrogen), is found in seawater.
Oh, and the best part of fusion: it doesn’t emit any greenhouse gases!
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💡 Feeling inspired
Last month, I attended the MIT Technology Review’s Climate Tech conference in Boston. This was a phenomenal conference with top-notch speakers and awesome climate people. Stay tuned for the 2023 conference!
One of the incredible speakers was Anne White, Head of Nuclear Science and Engineering at MIT. Her presentation about fusion filled me with excitement.
I was amazed to hear about the scientific advances researchers were making in fusion. And not only researchers. Many private companies (at least +30) worldwide are working to commercialize fusion.
Anne painted a future where fusion energy might be much closer than we think. The momentum of fusion power is growing.
🌟 The momentum for star power
Several factors are contributing to the growing momentum around fusion.
1. Recent technological breakthroughs
While humanity has never got a net gain from a fusion reactor, we might be approaching the magical Q=1 moment (getting as much energy out of the fusion reactor as we put in).
EAST (China) sustained a nuclear fusion reaction for more than 17 minutes at about 70 million °C in January 2022.
The National Ignition Facility (CA, US) achieved an energy yield 8x times higher than its earlier attempts and reached the ignition point in November 2021.
Commonwealth Fusion Systems (MA, US) created the world’s strongest magnetic field on Earth with its high-temperature superconducting electromagnet in September 2021.
2. Flood of private funding
As these major technical breakthroughs have unfolded, private funding has started flowing into fusion companies.
According to the Fusion Industry Association reported, the funding for private fusion companies more than doubled between 2021 and 2022. The funding for private fusion startups totals $4.8B now and is dominated by private funding ($4.7B).
VCs have even raised fusion-specific funds. Lowercarbon Capital announced a $250M fusion-focused fund in October 2022.
Some of the most recent funding rounds for fusion startups are here.
Commonwealth Fusion Systems (MA, US): $1.8B in December 2021.
Helion Energy (WA, US): $500M with an additional $1.7B of commitments tied to milestones in November 2021.
Zap Energy (WA, US): $160M in June 2022.
General Fusion (Canada): $130M in November 2021.
TAE Technologies (CA, US): $250M in July 2022.
EX-Fusion (Japan): 130M JPY (around $1M) in April 2022.
Marvel Fusion (Germany): $35M in February 2022.
3. Rise of fusion startups
We have an increasing number of private companies working to commercialize fusion. There are now +30 fusion startups, if not +50. As we will learn later, it is exciting how many different approaches these startups are taking toward fusion!
Note: I find it interesting that most fusion startups are located in the US. Being a European, this is a bit sad, but unfortunately, not surprising to me.
4. Supportive regulation
The U.S. Department of Energy announced $47M of funding for fusion research in the US and internationally in October 2022.
The U.S. Department of Energy also announced $50M funding for a milestone-based fusion development program, encouraging private-public collaboration in fusion development.
Let’s dive deeper next into fusion science!
⚛️ What is fusion?
In a fusion reaction, two lighter nuclei merge into a heavier nucleus. As a result, a lot of energy is released.
Below is a picture of two hydrogen isotopes, deuterium and tritium, fusing together into helium. These hydrogen isotopes are among the most commonly used fusion fuel. [What are isotopes?]
For two nuclei to fuse, they need a lot of energy to overcome the force keeping them away from each other (the electromagnetic force).
In the Sun and other stars, where fusion reactions take place, energy is no problem. The Sun has a temperature of 15 million °C at its core and has a huge gravitational force due to its mass (333,000x of the Earth), sustaining the fusion reactions.
⚡ Fusion energy
To harness fusion power on Earth, we must create controllable Sun-like conditions here.
There are three main conditions for a fusion reaction to occur:
1. High temperature
As noted in the previous section, two nuclei need a lot of energy to overcome the repelling electromagnetic force and fuse together. This is achieved by heating the atoms (usually hydrogen isotopes), giving them a lot of kinetic energy.
Most fusion technologies need to reach temperatures of 150 million °C. The high temperature will turn the atoms into plasma (the fourth state of matter, among solid, liquid, and gas). In plasma, electrons get ripped away from the atoms forming ionized gas (electrons and positively charged nuclei), allowing the nuclei to collide and fuse.
The plasma density must be right to achieve a suitable fusion reaction rate. The density depends on the approach to fusion (e.g., magnetic confinement, inertial confinement. Read more below!).
The particles of the plasma (electrons and positively charged nuclei) must be kept close to each other for the fusion reactions to occur. Again, depending on the approach to fusion, the confinement time differs.
⚙️ Approaches to fusion
We can achieve these three conditions via a variety of fusion technologies.
It is incredible to see how many different approaches startups take. Below you can see a graph of approaches fusion companies pursue.
The two most common general approaches for fusion are magnetic confinement and inertial confinement.
Magnetic confinement uses magnetic fields to confine the plasma inside the reactor.
An inertial confinement fusion reactor compresses and heats a small amount of fusion fuel to initiate the fusion reaction. Most projects use lasers to achieve this.
The National Ignition Facility focuses on inertial confinement fusion.
I’m excited to keep following the developments in fusion. This is not a moonshot, this is a starshot🌟
📚 Learn more about fusion
Fusion Industry Association (2022). The global fusion industry in 2022
Catalyst podcast (2021). Is nuclear fusion getting closer?
Climate Science (2022). Nuclear fusion
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