Knowledge, Capital, and a Growing Sense of Mission: Fusion Energy Development Enters a New Era

By Peter Dunn | Illustrations by Julie Carles

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A wide-angle view of the inside of the Alcator C-Mod tokamak at MIT. Photo by Bob Mumgaard.

The prospect of plentiful, inexpensive, carbon-free electricity generated by fusion has been tantalizing but elusive since the 1950s. Despite painstaking, groundbreaking science-oriented research at academic and government research labs, no one has yet achieved a net-positive fusion reaction that produces more power than it consumes.

But a new dynamic and new optimism are afoot in the fusion community, as evidenced by increasingly vibrant private sector activity. Roughly 20 fusion companies are now in operation, backed by some $1 billion in capital and with seven decades’ worth of hard-won knowledge to draw on. The most recent of which is Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS), which spun out of MIT this year and is supported by The Engine.

Each company is pursuing a distinct strategy towards the sequential goals of demonstrating net-positive fusion and applying it in a practical power plant, drawing on its own expertise and new advances in areas like magnetics, materials, and control systems. And several have announced roadmaps for demonstration of energy-gain fusion by the mid-2020s and usable reactor designs in the early 2030s, with commercial availability shortly thereafter.

That unprecedented assertiveness comes not only from greater knowledge and the increased risk tolerance of private organizations, but also from an increasingly imperative sense of purpose. There’s a widespread perception among fusion-oriented scientists, engineers, managers, and investors that they have the opportunity — and, indeed, the duty — to address grand problems facing the entire planet.

“It’s more than just electricity. It’s food, water, health, living standards. If we don’t make a course correction in the next 25 or 30 years, humanity will not be in a good spot; it’s a moral obligation to our kids, and fusion is like a ‘get out of jail free’ card,” says Michl Binderbauer, president and chief technology officer of TAE Technologies, which after 20 years in business is one of the longest-standing fusion companies. “We’re seeing this sense of urgency and passion in everyone who works for us, and especially the younger people.”

“Leveraging the Power of the Stars”

For all its world-changing potential, fusion must still pass a basic test: proving its worth as a means of generating electricity against competitors like natural gas, solar, wind, geothermal, hydro, and new-generation nuclear fission (some of which can be augmented by energy storage and carbon capture and sequestration {CCS}). But if it fulfills even a portion of its promise, fusion could change society’s traditional relationship with energy.

“Fusion is audacious and aspirational, it’s always triggered something in people, the idea of leveraging the power of stars,” says Dennis Whyte, head of MIT’s Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering and director of the Institute’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center. “It’s a way of saying that we should provide energy to the entirety of humanity in a way that’s environmentally responsible and that will last forever.”

On paper, fusion is almost ideal: fundamentally safe, no carbon emissions, 24/7 availability, little proliferation risk, powered by fuel that is inexpensive, inexhaustible and equitably distributed. A fusion-based power plant would incorporate one or more reactors where star-like conditions of extremely high temperature and pressure allow atomic nuclei to overcome their inherent repulsion and fuse. This creates a heavier nucleus while releasing energy in the form of heat, which would be channeled to turbines for electricity production.

The concept has been a staple of futuristic literature and movies, and as a result, “there’s generally an assumption that it’s a good thing,” says Michael Delage, chief technology officer of 16-year-old General Fusion. “That’s different from the day when you have to build a plant and engage with the local community, but there’s a lot of inherent safety.” There is no risk of uncontrolled reactions, and while reactor maintenance and decommissioning would result in some radioactive material, “it can be managed on a human time scale — decades and not millennia,” notes Delage. Moreover, plants could be located close to where electricity is needed, reducing the need for long transmission lines.

But realizing this vision has proved to be brutally difficult, with dozens of different experimental reactor concepts failing to achieve net-positive energy output.

One hurdle has been the need to develop better basic knowledge of plasmas — superheated ionized gases like those found in the core of stars — and an understanding of how to create, maintain, and control them. The field of plasma physics only began to emerge in the mid-20th Century, and fusion researchers have made substantial contributions to its advancement.

An Accelerating Time Frame?

The challenges have been difficult enough that, until recently, even technology optimists did not envision working fusion reactors before the latter half of the century, with 2100 a commonly cited date for commercial availability. The flagship effort to date, the internationally funded ITER project in southern France, is designed to achieve net positive output for limited periods after commencing experiments in 2025, at a cost of over 20 billion euros, but the nature of its origins and mission mean that it is oriented towards research and not electricity generation.

Other substantial efforts have been underway at publicly funded laboratories in the US, UK, Germany, and China. In addition to advancing plasma science, they have cultivated new sensing and measurement technologies, materials that can withstand the extraordinarily harsh conditions inside reactor chambers, ultra-precise control systems, and a host of other enabling technologies — often in partnership with universities and private contractors.

That evolving fund of knowledge set the stage for the current rise in private-sector activity, and more-optimistic timelines. In 2013, Lockheed Martin announced ambitious plans to demonstrate a 100-megawatt fusion reactor small enough to fit on a truck by 2019, with commercial production five years later. Although they have not provided an official update since then, and were not available for comment for this article, several other companies have put their own stakes in the ground.

UK-based Tokamak Energy has stated a goal of achieving first electricity by 2025 and a commercially viable Fusion Power Module by 2030. TAE’s Binderbauer has said the company aims to demonstrate net positive energy by the mid-2020s. And MIT spinout CFS has targeted putting energy on the grid in 15 years.

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“It’s Longer Term, But It’s Not Crazy”

While those time scales are short by fusion standards, they’re long for traditional investors. With so much potential, however, putting money on the table is not out of the question for long-term thinkers, impact investors, and organizations seeking future strategic advantage — especially those willing to manage risk and with an understanding of science and technology, including scaling processes.

Investment is starting to flow from individuals and institutions to the private sector. TAE has received over $500 million over 20 years, from investors such as Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, Goldman Sachs and Venrock. CFS has an initial $50 million stake from Italian utility Eni, which will also support related work at MIT. The UK’s First Light Fusion has raised about $33 million, according to the Crunchbase website, and the list goes on, with Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and a range of VC and energy funds investing in General Fusion and PayPal founder Peter Thiel investing in Helion Energy.

Malcolm Handley, a former software engineer who launched the Strong Atomics venture firm to invest in a portfolio of fusion companies, says the case is solidifying. “When I started, I thought it was just impact investing, but as I built the case, people started saying it’s not just that — it’s a good investment. The first company that demonstrates reactor gain from fusion can almost certainly go public, especially if they have a commercial path. If they can get to that, or a good proxy, in five to ten years, you can invest with relatively normal profit-seeking goals. It’s longer term, but it’s not crazy.” Strong Atomics currently has $4 million invested in four startups (which are also receiving funding from the US Department of Energy’s ARPA-E development program) and is planning a substantially larger second phase of investment.

As encouraging as these developments are, says Randall Volberg, executive director of the recently formed non-profit Fusion Consortium outreach organization, funding well beyond current levels will be needed. “NASA has a technology readiness scale that ranges from one, basic observations, all the way to nine, representing commercial deployment. Collectively, we range around two to five, where research continues to prove out the feasibility of the physics while technology is demonstrated using progressively sophisticated prototypes.

“An acceleration is taking place, but there’s still a long way to go on the science side. We need nine- and ten-figure level investment, something like $300 million to $600 million for each viable project to be in a position to demonstrate net power at a generator-relevant scale.” (To gain more visibility and attract talent and funding to the field, the Consortium is entering fusion as a theme for the 2019 cohort of the XPRIZE Visioneering Program, with an eye towards winning sponsorship for a prize competition starting in 2020.)

Government funding was the progenitor of this new wave of fusion enterprises and will continue to be essential in building additional scientific understanding, just as combined public-private efforts have driven new approaches in space exploration and advanced fission. However, Andrew Holland, director of studies and senior fellow for energy and climate at the American Security Project, notes that Washington is something of a lagging indicator of fusion interest. “At this point for politicians and policy people, fusion is still at the so-what stage,” he says, pointing out that 10 to 15 years is a lifetime in politics.

Holland adds, however, that Congress did appropriate a surprising $532.1 million for fusion development in the FY18 budget, including $122 million for ITER and $410 million for the American domestic program, including the DIII-D tokamak research program run by General Atomics and the National Spherical Torus Experiment at Princeton University. That represents a $152 million increase over FY17 — but future appropriations are an open question.

What will all that money be spent on? Most will go into design and production of one-of-a-kind machinery and systems for reactors (see sidebar, The State of Fusion). The goal is to create conditions hot enough for long enough, and with enough density of nuclei, for net-positive fusion to occur — a state that meets what’s known as the Lawson Criterion, originally defined in the 1950s.

What Do Potential Customers Want?

Let’s assume for the moment that one or more companies or projects manage to meet the Lawson Criterion. At that point, the emphasis will shift to applying the technology in a product that someone will buy.

While power grids are evolving, that “someone” is likely to be utility companies, and perhaps the best summary of what they want to buy can be found in a 1994 report from the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), the research and development arm of the US utility industry. Criteria for Practical Fusion Power Systems identifies three “criterion groups of overarching importance” that are still widely seen as valid today:

  • Economics: “To compensate for the higher economic risks associated with new technologies, fusion plants must have lower life-cycle costs than competing proven technologies available at the time of commercialization.”
  • Public Acceptance: “A positive public perception can be best achieved by maximizing fusion power’s environmental attractiveness, economy of power production, and safety.”
  • Regulatory Simplicity: “Any permitting/licensing process for fusion power plants should be designed to allow issuance of permits/ licenses prior to major capital commitment and for the life of the plant.”

This is where the vision of fusion as a world-changing technology must make a practical case: on cost per kilowatt-hour, and questions like how much cooling water a fusion power plant might need, whether maintenance will require radioactive components to be trucked through city streets, what measures are needed to ensure worker safety, and how to make certain a reactor’s rich stream of neutrons can’t be used for nefarious purposes.

These types of issues are likely addressable through a combination of planning, engineering, and regulation, and they will increase with importance along with the chances of actual market uptake.

CFS chief executive Bob Mumgaard speaks in terms of a “social license,” a broad acceptance that has to be earned by any new technology on its merits — from genetic sequencing to electric scooters. He notes that when fission emerged in the 1950s, “it started with a license that it was going to be available to everybody, but then the byproducts of the technology meant it had to be constrained — provided you don’t make bombs with it, you implement it in a way that it can’t melt down, you handle the waste. For fusion we have to work that out, it takes a dialogue, figuring things out with stakeholders. We’re already working on that.”

It’s worth noting that EPRI, which released its last major fusion-oriented report in 2012, plans to take a fresh look at the subject this year. “Based on the growing number of inquiries, greater attention to fusion may be in order,” said Andrew Sowder, technical executive for advanced nuclear technology.

And more broadly, notes Mumgaard, worldwide power grids in 2050 will likely be quite different from today’s, with different models for generation, consumption, and purchase. “That’s an exciting aspect; the fusion industry is navigating changing waters, and we will need to take advantage of and learn from the rise of renewables and other sources.”

What to Watch For

The first demonstration of controllable fusion will mark a technological and engineering triumph; if the history of innovation is any guide, there’s a fair chance it could happen in more than one place around the same time. What are some intermediate indicators that the milestone might be nearing?

One is new progress towards the Lawson Criterion, especially among technologies that are already relatively close (such as tokamaks and laser-driven inertial confinement fusion). But it’s important to keep in mind, as TAE’s Binderbauer notes, that success on that point does not necessarily translate into commercial viability. There may be a need going forward for separate agreed-upon metrics that can factor in economics.

One intriguing sign is the recent formation of several industry organizations. In addition to the Fusion Consortium, there is now the American Fusion Project (AFP), a spin-out from the American Security Project (ASP), which focuses on educating policymakers, increasing public awareness, and encouraging public-private cooperation.

There is also the Fusion Industry Association, an independent association affiliated with the American Security Action Fund, a 501(c)4 nonprofit. This allows it to lobby and advocate, and provide a unified voice in Washington to call for regulatory certainty, public-private research partnerships, and government financial support to encourage innovation and reduce risk.

Such collaboration between public and private entities could be a boon to potential projects like a materials testing facility, which would stretch the resources of any single company. General Fusion’s Delage notes that there’s already substantial cooperation on simulation and diagnostics, and he cites heat extraction from reactors as something that affects every approach to fusion.

“There will naturally be an ongoing role for government,” Delage adds. “The biotech industry does a tremendously good job of integrating academic and publicly funded research, and commercialization of discovery. We in the physical sciences can learn from them on how to get the mix right, and hopefully fusion will find a model — that’s one of the exciting things about CFS and their integration with MIT.”

Another development is the International Conference in Innovative Fusion Approaches, which among other efforts, is seeking to bridge China’s building of fusion capabilities and expertise with the established fusion research community and infrastructure in the West.

One thing that few see happening in the near term is industry consolidation, although it’s not hard to envision a scenario where certain companies might find that access to one another’s IP and expertise could bring results sooner. As MIT’s Whyte says (of CFS, but it holds true for everyone), “there is a 100 percent probability that someone else comes up with a key breakthrough.”

And the fact that there are now more “someone elses” in business than ever before is, perhaps, the most promising sign of all for fusion’s immediate future.

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