Every now and then, a scientific breakthrough changes the world. From the Copernican heliocentric model of the universe and electricity to penicillin and the discovery of the structure of DNA, these developments transform our globe — and another one has been reached.
A new breakthrough with world changing potential.
For most of human history, why stars glitter and the sun shines were a mystery. But, in 1920, British astrophysicist Arthur Eddington suggested that stars get their energy from the fusion of hydrogen atoms into helium. Nuclear physics pioneer Hans Bethe identified the process that underpinned Eddington’s theory in 1939.
On December 5, 2022, scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Ignition Facility (NIF) at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory proved that theory for the first time in a laboratory. They achieved “fusion ignition,” reproducing the process that powers the sun, which created a fusion reaction that produced more energy than it took to trigger it. They achieved fusion ignition again this past July.
Nuclear fusion has the potential to deliver an inexhaustible supply of cheap clean energy to any region or geography on the grid already in place, create a market worth trillions, and meet the world’s escalating need for energy expected to grow by nearly 50 percent by 2050.
The race for fusion energy is on.
The United Kingdom, Germany, France, South Korea, and Japan have fusion energy programs underway. China sees the massive implications of nuclear fusion in its competition with the U.S. for global supremacy in the 21st century. It is ramping up spending for fusion energy research and facilities and has reported its own scientific breakthrough—a world record in sustaining a nuclear fusion reaction. Earlier this year, an analysis by the Japanese research company astamuse reported China has filed more patents in nuclear fusion technology that any other country over the past decade.
There are now 43 fusion companies known worldwide, reports the Fusion Industry Association, and the infant industry has attracted more than $6 billion in funding. Of these, the United States has the most runners in the race—25 of them—and most of this investment. These companies are working on different concepts for a pilot scale demonstration. However, they are too small to solve the host of challenges they face on their own.
Recently, the U.S. Department of Energy announced awards of $43 million to eight of these U.S. companies under its Milestone-Based Fusion Development Program to fund applied R&D to resolve scientific and technological challenges to create a fusion pilot plant. Within 18 months, the companies aim to deliver a preconceptual design (addressing the same issues as a conceptual design but at lower levels of fidelity and with greater uncertainties), and a roadmap toward realizing a fusion pilot plant. This is an important step toward establishing the United States as a leader in nuclear fusion technology.
The United States should seize first mover advantage.
Historically, the commercialization pathway for energy technology has taken 30 to 50 years. But fusion energy has reached a critical turning point. Projections for putting it on the grid range from 10 to more than 20 years. The White House and many commercial companies are targeting the early 2030s, and a few nuclear fusion start-ups have even more aggressive timelines.
Federally-supported efforts have prioritized the basic science for years. Now is the time to pivot and shift into high gear with a whole nation effort to make progress on numerous fronts simultaneously and cut the timeline from proof-of-concept to scale-up within 10 to 15 years. This involves:
- Increasing investment in applied R&D and engineering development of fusion pilot plants.
- Establishing a regulatory process that minimizes burdens and cost to developers.
- Beginning development of supply chains and manufacturing.
- Expanding STEM education programs to develop commercial fusion-ready physicists, engineers and advanced technicians.
- Aligning public and private efforts to complement each other.
- Establishing channels for rapid transfer of new fusion-related research and technology from the research community to industry.
We need to go bold.
The United States has made big bets before and come out as a big winner. President Kennedy challenged the nation to achieve one of the most ambitious feats of engineering in human history in 1961—put a man on the moon and return him safely to earth before the end of the decade. To achieve that goal, 20,000 industrial firms and universities mobilized. A recent cost analysis suggests that nearly $26 billion was spent by the Apollo program’s completion — or $257 billion in 2020 U.S. dollars, as estimated by the paper’s author.
That massive effort helped pave the way for U.S. leadership in the Space Age and our dominance in global aerospace markets. The United States has a 55 percent share of global value-added in aircraft and spacecraft manufacturing; the next largest producer, China, has an eight percent share.
Is it worth taking the risk?
There are tough scientific and engineering challenges that must be overcome to achieve commercial fusion, and it is uncertain which concepts will emerge as winners.
But As Tomás Díaz de la Rubia, Vice President for Research and Partnerships at the University of Oklahoma, puts it plainly:
“Successful commercial development of fusion energy will be among history’s most profound changes. Fusion will offer a clean, sustainable baseload and safe energy source that, when conquered on Earth, will enable a transformational change from energy scarcity to abundance — enabling us to do things that could never have been done before, overcoming enduring global grand challenges, like desalinating water, and making sustainable transportation fuels.”
The stakes are sky high. The nation that leads the fusion revolution will not only enjoy a massive economic boom and energy security, but also gain tremendous geopolitical power as energy has long shaped alliances, competition and conflict. The U.S. position in the Age of Fusion Energy could hang in the balance.