Fusion breakthrough dawns a new era for US energy and industry

Fusion breakthrough dawns a new era for US energy and industry
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The fusion age is upon us.

This week, a major breakthrough was achieved in a key technology for commercial fusion power, and very likely sets up the first ever net-energy-out fusion plant being commissioned four years from today. 

Everyone in the energy industry, policy makers, academia and labs should take note that we are at the dawn of a new energy revolution. And while U.S. fusion policy has accelerated significantly over the last few years, this announcement is a call for us to identify how U.S. energy industry and fusion efforts might be accelerated and shifted as a result.

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Most people are familiar with fission energy, normally called nuclear power. That energy is created when uranium atoms are split and energy is liberated from the reaction that is used to make power. But a challenge with nuclear is the used fuel has radioactive byproducts which take some effort to manage. 

In fusion, two hydrogen atoms fuse, which liberates energy for power and helium, which is not a challenging product for the environment. Both nuclear and fusion do not emit carbon or any other gas emissions. And both nuclear and fusion have advantages over wind, solar and other non-emitting energy types, given you can produce large amounts of energy in very small land footprints that can be located anywhere, and can run every hour of every day. 

Overall, fusion, if we can make it work (and work economically), has all the advantages and none of the disadvantages of other generation types. 

Commonwealth Fusion Systems (“CFS”) a Cambridge, Mass., headquartered Massachusetts Institute of Technology spinout, made the breakthrough announcement. CFS has been focusing on developing a fusion plant based on the most researched fusion design, called tokamak, which uses powerful magnets to provide the magnetic containment for the fusion reaction. The core challenge for fusion is making a magnetic field strong enough to contain the reaction, while also generating more energy from the reaction than it takes to run the magnets.

CFS has been focusing on jumping magnet technologies historically used for fusion plants. They announced that they have successfully fabricated a full, plant-sized magnet with high temperature superconductor (“HTS”) material. This magnet operates at a magnetic field strength significantly higher than current technologies, and is one hundred times larger than previous HTS magnets. And using this material means that power needed to produce the field is very low, compared to other materials. CFS and much of the fusion community have confidence that this magnet will very likely allow the CFS plant being built in Massachusetts to be the world’s first net-energy-out fusion plant.

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This means we will, for the first time, be able to generate more energy from the fusion reaction than it takes to generate the containment. Their target, which I believe is achievable, is significantly more than one-times more power out than it takes to make the containment. And the higher magnetic field allows for a much smaller reactor than current nuclear plants, or the ITER fusion facility in France, allowing for much more manageable, cheaper and lower risk construction. 

In addition to CFS, it is likely that other fusion companies could also be close to achievements, including TAE Technologies, Canada’s General Fusion and others. 

As a result, U.S. fusion energy policy should promptly get a review, and identify how we can help accelerate this new age. Congress has significantly increased support for fusion in the last few years and the U.S. fusion community has significantly increased efforts — including broad increases at the Department of Energy to help achieve fusion power plants and the community’s development of the first long range fusion plan

This announcement should cause policy makers to reassess some specifics on fusion. They should look at fully funding certain authorized fusion efforts. Efforts should also be accelerated beyond those levels in certain areas, including increased support for demonstration plants, designing and building power-production portions of a fusion power plant, and further materials testing efforts for the fusion containment.

Everyone should absorb that the fusion age is upon us. The target for net-energy-out fusion is now four years; not 30. And we should identify how to take this jump in technology and drive the future: Built here in the U.S., with American technology and innovation. 

Paul Dabbar is former undersecretary for Science at the U.S. Department of Energy, and Distinguished Visiting Fellow at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy.