‘Bottling the Sun’: is this a new dawn for the fusion industry?

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There are two good reasons to be very excited about the latest breakthrough in nuclear fusion technology announced this week. Creating net positive energy in fusion not only represents a great scientific achievement, but also opens up the possibility of a spurt of cheap, green and abundant energy that could put the environmentally-destroying fossil fuel industry out of business.

But there are two good reasons not to get too excited by the news. Even with a favorable wind, it will take at least 20 years of development and massive injections of capital before fusion power becomes commercially viable. Unfortunately, that means it’s unlikely to come quickly enough to address the immediate threat of a climate emergency. The question then arises: If alternative clean energy sources such as solar, wind and next-generation nuclear fission are already proven and available, will the technology be supported?

There is no shortage of excitement On Tuesday, US Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm confirmed the test progress. First reported in the FT. For the first time in history, scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California succeeded in generating more energy in a fusion reaction than was consumed by laser beams. “Simply put, this is one of the most impressive scientific achievements of the 21st century,” Granholm said.

A few days ago, 192 large lasers at the lab’s National Ignition Facility blasted a peppercorn-sized capsule with 2.05 megajoules of energy, heating it to 100 million degrees Celsius, hotter than the core of the Sun. The resulting ignition, fusing hydrogen nuclei together, released 3.15 megajoules of energy, a 1.5-fold gain. For more than a century, scientists have understood how fusion works in galaxies, the most common source of energy in the universe. But it took more than 60 years for Livermore researchers to “bottle the sun” on Earth.

Although pleased with their success, the Livermore scientists were quick to qualify their achievement. Targeted laser beams may only use 2.05 megajoules of energy, but the ignition facility must pull down 300 megajoules from the overall grid to produce a laser pulse. Furthermore, the researchers produced a “one-shot-every-two-weeks-type machine,” whereas they would need to generate 100 times more energy at 10 times per second to have a meaningful impact. One of the scientists, Andrew MacKinnon, told the BBC: “The work is well done, but there is a lot of work to do.

Perhaps the greatest significance of the breakthrough was the transformation of nuclear fusion from a box of theoretical possibilities into an enormous engineering challenge. Many skeptics have questioned whether a merger could make business sense, given the complications and costs involved. Sir Walter Marshall, former chairman of the UK’s Atomic Energy Commission, It is customary to say In the 1980s: “There will come a time when we get as much energy from a fusion reactor. Then there will come a time when we put out more energy than we put in. However, there will never come a time when we get our money back.”

However, there are plenty of entrepreneurs and investors determined to prove that argument wrong. The Washington-based Fusion Industry Association found in its latest annual report that 33 private fusion companies had raised a total of $4.9bn in funding, including $117mn in government grants. Much has gone into developing experimental tokamak reactors that heat magnetically suspended plasma to extreme temperatures in an attempt to fuse hydrogen atoms. Naturally, one can expect people who have built their careers in this field to be excited about its prospects. However, it is noteworthy that 93 percent of industry respondents thought that the first fusion electricity would be delivered to the grid in the 2030s.

This latest experimental breakthrough may come at a good time in the investment cycle. Venture capital investors are quickly warming to climate technology and Western governments are rediscovering their faith in industrial policy. In America, $700bn Inflation Relief Act There are generous subsidies and tax incentives to green the economy.

Over the past few years, corporate capitalists, VC investors and speculators have been happily throwing money into the money pits of the metaverse, web3 and crypto. Fortunately, investors can now focus more on transformative technologies like nuclear fusion. There should be no slowdown in investing in renewable energy. But the sad truth is that humanity must now take every measure to protect the planet.

What is often lost in the environmental debate is that energy is a wonderful thing and is essential to billions of people. Nuclear fusion may one day provide an abundance of carbon-free energy. Even if it takes decades, it’s hard to think of a bigger social benefit.

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