Something strange is happening in the world of fusion energy re- search. There’s been an outbreak of entrepreneurship, maverick in- dependence, and pioneering spirit. In a field that has come to epito- mize the worst of “big science”— slow, overpriced, and heavily engineered—some people are finally saying “enough is enough” and striking
out on their own to find another way.
In unassuming industrial units across
North America, Europe, and elsewhere,
small teams of scientists and engineers supported by either private finance or a mix of
government and private funds are working
out novel approaches to fusion. They’re not
just doing research: They’re aiming to build
financially viable power reactors simpler
and cheaper than anything envisaged by
publicly funded efforts, and they’re hoping
to do it a whole lot faster.
So why is this happening? And why now?
In the more than 6 decades that research-
ers have been trying to replicate the sun’s
source of heat—fusing together atoms to
release the energy locked in their nuclei—
reactors have grown from tabletop gadgets
to multibillion-dollar behemoths. ITER, the
multinational facility aiming to show net
energy gain for the first time, will weigh
in at 23,000 tonnes when complete—three
times the weight of the Eiffel Tower—and
will cost about $20 billion. The National Ig-
nition Facility (NIF), which uses a different
fusion technology, cost $3.5 billion to build.
ITER and NIF are the current torchbearers in the effort to show that a reactor
can produce more energy than it consumes.
That’s a big ask because fusion reactions
take a lot of energy to get going: The fuel
has to be heated to and held at more than
150 million degrees Celsius. In theory, once
the reaction gets started it will heat itself,
but no one has come close to achieving that
yet. NIF was meant to have produced such
an “ignited” fusion burn several years ago,
but it is still far from that goal. ITER isn’t
due to start doing burning experiments until after 2027.
Meanwhile, the huge cost of constructing
these facilities has choked off funds for independent fusion programs. Some researchers
argue this outcome was inevitable because,
in technological terms, ITER and NIF take
fusion to extremes. ITER aims to bottle up
a tenuous burning plasma in magnetic fields
for as long as possible; NIF’s strategy is to
blast fusion fuel with giant lasers, crushing
it to as high a density as possible. Reaching
those extremes requires complex technology,
high cost, and large size.
By Daniel Clery
Startups with novel technologies are
taking on fusion’s Goliaths
General Fusion’s machine
compresses fuel with