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Unprecedented Progress Accelerates Fusion Research, Thanks to Private Sector Investment


With at least 35 global fusion companies and a total funding of nearly US$ 2 billion, progress towards fusion is accelerating. (Image: EUROfusion).

Some may ask, “Limitless energy like the sun? Would that ever be possible?” Some others know it is possible and invest money in it. Thanks to a new flux of investment from public-private partnerships, fusion research is gathering momentum and virtually limitless energy is closer to reality than ever before. Fusion could, in the longer term, help solve the carbon emission crisis and has attracted significant venture capital investment in recent years.

“Fusion energy may no longer be 30 or 50 years away. There is new confidence that fusion as a source of energy is becoming a reality, and one clear indication of this is the flow of private capital into it. This is happening not only in USA or UK, but also in Europe, China, Japan, Australia…” said Sehila M. Gonzalez de Vicente, Nuclear Fusion Physicist at the IAEA. “Similarly to the speedy development of the COVID-19 vaccine, when a technology is urgently needed and attracts investment and international collaboration, it can happen much sooner than predicted.”

Over 450 participants from more than 50 countries gathered last month in the virtual webinar, Pushing for Fusion Energy - What is happening now? to discuss the status of fusion development, the existing challenges, and how public and private sector can collaborate to speed up the process of developing fusion as a reliable source of energy that is also commercially viable.

Nuclear fusion does not emit carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, so when fully developed, it can be the most powerful tool to mitigate climate change as a low carbon energy source.

Some of the developments discussed by the six panellists included the proliferation of fusion-specific investment funds and several companies raising over US$ 100 million each for fusion research. Driven by the progress made in fusion facilities worldwide, the enhanced focus on fusion as a future energy source is also thanks to the development of new materials, new plant designs and new software that could allow for a faster and cheaper construction of fusion power plants and with the added benefit that some of the technology developed can be applied in non-energy fields, such as the health sector.

“Everything has changed. Five years ago, only one company had raised more than 100 million dollars, and everybody else was struggling to get money. Today, the same company has raised closer to a billion dollars, and other companies have raised more than 100 million dollars. It’s a whole different world,” said Malcolm Handley, the leader of a venture capital fund specialised in fusion.

The panellists also talked about the nature of public-private partnerships fostering the development of fusion already in the near term, with companies aiming to generate fusion electricity on a commercial scale as early as around 2035, and some countries, such as the UK, taking steps to conclude contracts for fusion technology development with private companies.

Finally, the current status of fusion research, such as existing technologies or prototypes and the status of the ITER experiment, was reviewed.

This webinar was organized as a follow-up activity to the First IAEA Workshop on Fusion Enterprises in 2018 that took place in Santa Fe, USA. A second workshop is scheduled for 11-13 July, 2022, in Oxford, UK.

The role of the IAEA

The IAEA has been at the core of international fusion research. The IAEA launched the Nuclear Fusion journal in 1960 to exchange information about technical advances, and it is considered the leading periodical in the field. The first international IAEA Fusion Energy Conference was held in 1961 and, since 1974, the IAEA convenes a conference every two years to foster discussion on developments and achievements in the field.

After two decades of negotiations on the design and location of the world’s largest international fusion facility, the ITER Organization was established in 2007 in France, with the aim of demonstrating the scientific and technological feasibility of fusion energy production. The ITER Agreement is deposited with the IAEA Director General. Next step, after ITER, is the construction of demonstration fusion power plants (or DEMOs) to show that controlled nuclear fusion can generate net electrical power. Several countries are working on various design concepts for DEMO. The IAEA hosts workshops on DEMOs to facilitate collaboration in defining and coordinating regular DEMO programme activities around the world, with the next edition scheduled in September 2022 in Aomori, Japan. The IAEA also hosts and maintains the Fusion Device Information System (FusDIS), which contains information on fusion devices, public or private, with experimental and demonstration designs worldwide.

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