Power generation currently accounts for approximately 30 percent of global CO₂ emissions. To meet the Paris Agreement’s target of full decarbonisation by 2050, the world is increasingly desperate for an abundant source of clean energy and many governments and utilities are shifting away from fossil fuels as their primary energy source and turning to renewable energy technologies to help mitigate the climate crisis.
Volatility in the energy markets and geopolitical challenges may have complicated the transition to net zero in the short run, but in the longer run, the economics of renewable energy sources will drive up investment.
So, can the energy that powers the sun and the stars really change the way we live? Many of the world’s leading fusion experts say yes.
As the impacts of climate change continue to grow, so does interest in fusion’s potential as a clean energy source.
Fusion is among the most environmentally friendly sources of energy. There are no CO₂ or other harmful atmospheric emissions from the fusion process, which means that fusion does not contribute to greenhouse gas emissions or global warming. Its two sources of fuel, hydrogen and lithium, are widely available in many parts of the Earth.
Fusion energy could also help provide the flexibility needed for zero-carbon electricity grids. It is what’s known as ‘dispatchable’, which means that, unlike wind and solar, it does not rely on environmental or other external variables to generate power, for example, low wind speeds or cloudy days. The process of producing fusion energy creates no carbon emissions and no long-lived nuclear waste from spent fuel.
Historically, fusion machines have not been technically viable, because the energy input required to power the reaction has been larger than the energy produced by the machine. But in the last five years, fusion energy has reached a turning point in its development.
While fusion reactions have been studied in laboratories since the 1930s, there are still many critical questions scientists must answer to make fusion power a reality. Time is of the essence, and governments are now putting their money where their mouth is.
The UK government plans to put in place an ambitious and cutting-edge suite of new, alternative R&D programmes to support the UK’s flourishing fusion sector and strengthen international collaboration. To deliver this package, it announced earlier this month that it plans to invest up to £650 million until 2027. This is in addition to the £126 million previously announced in November 2022 to support UK fusion R&D programmes.
In the US, the Department of Energy (DoE) announced $46 million in funding for commercial fusion energy development as a major step forward in its commitment to partner with innovative researchers and companies across the country to take fusion energy past the lab and toward the grid.
Investment in the global fusion industry has now reached a cumulative USD6.21 billion, up from USD4.8 billion a year ago, according to the third annual Global Fusion Industry Report from the Fusion Industry Association.
Whilst the total of funding announced this year is less than last year, it shows continued investment in and excitement about the industry against a backdrop of many technology investors pulling back in other fields. Last year’s figures were dominated by a couple of big investments, while this year saw a much wider range of smaller, but significant, investments including those in emerging companies and new approaches to fusion technology.
Nuclear fusion and plasma physics research is being carried out across the world, and researchers have finally achieved scientific energy gains in a fusion “EnergiCell” which is being independently validated every six weeks as the technology and process progresses.
The next six months will see a real focus on increasing power output from the EnergiCell to a COP* of between 5-10, integration of the EnergiCell into a 100Kw combined heat and power (CHP) unit – which should be roughly the size of a small dishwasher; and a focus on commercially tangible products, such as EV car chargers, that can quickly make a huge impact on today’s climate and energy challenges.
How long it will take for fusion energy to be successfully rolled out commercially at utility-scale will depend on mobilising resources through global partnerships and collaboration, and on how fast the industry will be able to develop, validate and qualify emerging fusion technologies.
Another important issue is to develop in parallel the necessary fusion infrastructure, such as the requirements, standards, and good practices, relevant to the realisation of this future energy source.
There are many investment opportunities available in UK fusion energy R&D as we’re essentially trying to create stars on earth, which is no mean feat. But if we can successfully navigate the bottleneck of the next few years without damaging the environmental too radically, the road beyond may be smoother.
* The Coefficient of Performance (CoP) is a ratio that describes the efficiency of a system. It is based on the relationship between the power (kW) input to a system compared to the amount of power that is output. CoP = power output / power input. The higher the number, the more efficient the system.