Jun 16, 2021
While national laboratories have been trying to build economically sustainable fusion machines for more than a half century, private investors have only recently joined the pursuit as urgency builds to find new sources of emissions-free power to slow global warming.
“There are a lot of people preparing to take shots on goal right now,” General Fusion Chief Executive Officer Chris Mowry said in an interview. “We now have the first best but there are lots of others lining up.”
Globally, more than $1.5 billion has poured into private fusion startups such as TAE Technologies Inc. and Commonwealth Fusion Systems in the U.S. Public funding from 35 countries has gone toward the $22 billion International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) being built in southern France. The project was supposed to begin testing in four years, though that date is now in doubt after pandemic lockdowns snarled supply chains.
General Fusion’s announcement follows a call in April by the U.S. National Academies of Science for the country to accelerate plans to build a pilot fusion reactor capable of generating electricity as soon as 2035. Last November, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson offered $17 billion in support for green industries including nuclear power. His government wants an operating fusion plant based on the ITER design by 2040.
The plant will be “a huge boost for our plans to develop a fusion industry,” U.K. Science Minister Amanda Solloway said in a statement on Thursday. “Fusion energy has great potential as a source of limitless, low-carbon energy.”
Mowry said the U.K.’s support for the General Fusion pilot plant was “very meaningful,” but didn’t elaborate on the size of its financial support. General Fusion, which raised $100 million in its last round of fundraising, is again preparing to tap investors to help finance the project. “At some point we’re going to go public,” Mowry said.
Construction is expected to begin next year on the company’s $400 million facility near the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy in Oxfordshire. “There’s a great talent pool there that knows how to operate and maintain large fusion machines,” said Mowry.
Culham is currently home to the Joint European Torus (JET) and has become one of the world’s most important fusion-science hubs. But much of the work on that project, which has endured over four decades, will wind down once ITER begins testing in southern France as government funding is redirected toward the newer project. Both JET and ITER are derived from designs first tested in the Soviet Union. Lasers and powerful electromagnets are arrayed around a supercooled, doughnut-shaped container to hold superheated plasma in place that is used to fuse the atoms.
General Fusion’s machine takes a radically different approach. Its magnetized-target fusion reactor compresses a hydrogen target surrounded by a swirling wall of molten metal. Some 500 synchronized pistons that encompass a cylinder fire at a rate of six to 60 shots per minute. Heat from the plasma is transferred into the metal, where it can then be channeled to turbines that produce power.
And unlike the massive future fusion reactors envisioned by ITER that can generate more than 1,000 megawatts of electricity each, General Fusion’s machines will produce just 115 megawatts of power — not enough energy to light up a large city, but more than enough to stabilize grids filled with intermittent solar and wind power. “That’s the sweet spot of distributed energy,” said Mowry, an engineer who formerly worked at General Electric Co.
Not all physicists agree that smaller fusion reactors like the one General Fusion is building will generate the most cost-efficient energy. But scientists acknowledge that private investors are helping to balance pure research against commercial opportunity.
“It is time to dispel the idea that fusion is an academic endeavor in pursuit of an energy unicorn,” said International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi. “We can see this is around the corner. We are approaching this moment fast.”