8 Things You Need to Know about Fusion

C-Change Conversations Blog

The PI3 plasma injector achieved first plasma operation in late 2017 and is the world's largest and most powerful machine of its type. (Credit: General Fusion)

Fusion is one of the most exciting and promising clean energy sources on the horizon. Why?  Because when you fuse nuclei together at 200 million degrees, you get the “holy grail” of energy. Clean, abundant, and safe, fusion energy can be used for electricity, manufacturing, and heating. 

C-Change Conversations attended the “Roadmap to the Fusion Energy Economy Workshop” to learn how government, venture capital and business experts envision the future of fusion. Here are my takeaways and what you need to know about fusion.

It’s finally within reach. Breakthroughs are happening in labs around the world. Advances in computation (AI, machine learning, simulation), manufacturing (additive engineering), and materials (superconducting electromagnets as well as permanent magnets) have experts predicting that in the next 20 years fusion energy is almost inevitable. 

We need it. Even if we create a clean grid built around renewable energy and electrify transportation and heating, we probably will need additional clean energy to meet the Paris emissions goals. Fusion is ideally suited to do so.

Fusion has advantages over renewables. Fusion plants can be placed directly next to large cities or manufacturing centers because the plants do not pose a nuclear risk and do not need a lot of land, unlike solar panels and wind turbines. Close proximity means transmission costs go down. Fusion can also be used in synthetic fuel and chemical processes, as well as heating. 

Fusion has less baggage than fission. Fusion further holds the promise of low regulatory costs, because unlike the nuclear fission industry, fusion cannot be weaponized and has negligible waste. Fusion would also have lower operating, staffing and security costs than nuclear fission power. 

The dollars add up. Experts believe that fusion can be created economically. The challenge will be to then scale quickly enough to avoid the high costs and ravages of climate change. Clean energy saves more money than many realize because so much of our defense and geopolitical spending is tied to protecting access to carbon resources.

But dollars are scarce. Investment is lagging and current market trends could curtail success. Fusion research has universal support within Congress and the Department of Energy, but the unpredictability of funding cycles hampers progress. Private investment in fusion is only about $1 billion, while the market for energy investment is close to $10 trillion worldwide.

The market hasn’t caught up with reality. Many investors and government officials continue to perceive energy as a commodity, without valuing the fact that clean energy could blunt significant climate change impacts. They are looking at energy through old paradigms--consumer acceptance, utility models, policy and costs structures--that do not yet factor in climate change. 

General Fusion's compression system prototype at its facilities in Burnaby, BC. The prototype was built to test compression of a liquid metal liner with pistons. (Credit: General Fusion)

So, what’s the answer? We might need a “Manhattan-style project” to get fusion up and running. We definitely need more young scientists in the field, and we need to improve public understanding and support of fusion. If we develop this high risk/high reward energy source smartly, it could potentially yield immensely important benefits, and quite literally help save the world. 

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