Will America Win The Race For Nuclear Fusion?

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By Anes Alic

An MIT spin-out company is planning to cross the commercial nuclear fusion finish line before anyone else, and big money is backing this game-changing tech that will dictate our energy future by promising unlimited zero-carbon energy–the holy grail.  By 2025, Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS)–an MIT spin-out–plans to see is SPARC project become the first fusion reactor to show “net energy gain” by 2025. By 2030, it intends to make nuclear fusion a commercial reality, disrupting all those nuclear fusion experiments elsewhere in the world that have been working towards this a lot longer, and disrupting energy–forever.

Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates believes it. He was the first big backer of CFS. And now, Norway’s oil giant–Equinor–is throwing money behind it.

Last week, CFS–founded only in 2018–raised another $84 million from investors in Europe and Asia, bringing the total raised by the nuclear fusion startup to $200 million. Singapore’s Temasek Holding Pte was also among the key investors for this cash round.

“We’re entering the next phase,” CFS CEO Bob Mumgaard said. “It’s time to put down some roots, get us all under one roof, and build some hardware for the future fusion business line.”

Nuclear Fusion: How It works

A bit of disambiguation is required here: Nuclear fusion is not to be confused with “nuclear fission” or with “cold fusion”. Nuclear fusion is essentially how the sun and the stars power themselves–naturally. It means harnessing the sun for unlimited, on-demand, clean energy.

Nuclear fission–conventional nuclear power production–is expensive, messy, and dangerous. Cold fusion is still a pipe dream. Nuclear fusion is the closest thing we have to a silver bullet against climate change because it’s wildly efficient, totally clean, and doesn’t leave radioactive waste in its wake.

Nuclear fusion requires only hydrogen–a naturally occurring fuel–while nuclear fission requires enriched uranium. Fusion is also many times more powerful than conventional nuclear fission is.

As described by ReCharge, nuclear fusion “involves changing a gas to a plasma at temperatures of tens of millions of degrees, aided by superconducting magnets, to create collisions between hydrogen atoms, tapping the energy that’s produced.”

Why Big Money Is Excited about SPARC

Equinor isn’t the only oil giant throwing money at American nuclear fusion–Italian Eni is also an investor. But when it comes to big oil, American giants are less forward-thinking than their European counterparts who tend to view energy as energy, whether it’s clean or dirty.

Eni was the first big oil believer in nuclear fusion.

Back in the spring of 2018, Eni joined forces with the National Research Council (CNR) for joint research in nuclear fusion and committed to investing more than $28 million over five years to establish a fusion research center in Sicily.

That same spring, Eni signed agreements with CFS and MIT to help develop fusion power generation tech, eyeing the first-ever commercial power plant producing energy by fusion. Under the agreement, Eni acquired a “significant share” in CFS with an initial investment of $50 million and a spot on the board.

Equinor–which has a major and growing portfolio of clean energy–is the second one to jump on the nuclear fusion bandwagon with an $84-million commitment.

“Equinor is a broad energy company and we will continue to invest in promising and potentially game-changing zero-carbon energy technologies. We are investing in fusion and CFS because we believe in the technology and the company, and we remain committed to providing energy to the world, now and in a low carbon future,” said Sophie Hildebrand, Chief Technology Officer and Senior Vice President for Research and Technology at Equinor.

They’re on board–in America–because, despite the fact that CFS got a later start than its counterparts elsewhere in the world, it suddenly seems to be the one to reach the finish line first.

Founded only in 2018, CFS’ SPARC project–a program to develop high-temperature superconducting (HTS) magnets and design and build the world’s first net-energy-gain fusion system–is said to be “on schedule and below budget”. And it will use the money just raised from Equinor and other European and Asian investors to further accelerate progress, and build a new CFS headquarters and manufacturing facilities.

As Mumgaard noted in a press release: “This funding is further evidence of a growing fusion industry and the important transition that is taking place as fusion expands from public-funded research to the private companies that will drive commercial fusion to market to help solve climate change.”  

And the next major milestone looks set to come in 2021 when CFS plans to demonstrate a successful 20 Tesla, large-bore magnet. It will be the first such test in history.

But will it be the holy grail demonstration that convinces American oil to pump money in to diversify their energy portfolios?

American oil is still stubbornly clinging to fossil fuels, though under increasing pressure from investors to broaden the energy net in order to mitigate risk. That pressure has grown exponentially under the twin threats of a coronavirus pandemic and an oil-price war that has killed demand.

They may be the last to jump on the nuclear fusion bandwagon, which might mean waiting until 2025 when CFS/MIT plan to demonstrate the first “net energy gain” from nuclear fusion by generating 50-100 megawatts thermal to produce power in a conventional steam cycle. That achievement would be the signal that nuclear fusion is commercially viable. And it would be a global first–and an American first–that Big Oil isn’t going to want to miss out on.

Crude Oil

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