Does a future exist with nuclear fusion?

Yes, the science is very hard, the engineering nigh impossible, but the rewards are potentially enormous

The JET vacuum vessel. Chris Roux / EUROfusion
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We are so used to it, we take it for granted. We may be conscious of its source, but are passive about the impact… someone else will find a cleaner solution. It comes through our walls and we just plug in. As if by magic, the lights go on, the phone is charged and the blender, well, blends.

I’m talking, of course, about electricity.

Electricity appeared on streets in 1881 in London, and in our homes in the early 1900s. And now it mostly runs in the background to power our lives. So much so that, globally, annual electricity consumption now stands at approximately 23 trillion kilowatt hours. With that come a large amount of carbon emissions – about one billion tonnes annually. A fifth of that is produced through sustainable means, like wind or solar power.

You see the scale of the challenge, particularly as electricity consumption is set to further increase amid a transition toward wider scale electrification, like with our vehicles and mass transit, something we are researching at the Dubai Future Foundation.

Cop26, the UN conference on climate change, is less than two months away and solutions to ensure our existence on this planet are needed. Fast.

Enter nuclear fusion.

The concept is as follows: at very high temperatures you smash together two atoms; energy is released as they fuse into a new single atom. In principle this sounds easy. In practice, the system needs to be heated to 100 million degrees – hotter than the centre of the sun – and the resulting burning plasma needs to be maintained for as long as possible to gain heat that can be converted to electric energy and helium.

That’s the reaction that takes place on the sun, so it's definitely scary to develop this here on Earth.

Recently, however, important progress has been reported by the National Ignition Facility in California and separately by MIT. NIF ignited a hydrogen fuel pellet to the point of being self-sustaining, for a fraction of a billionth of a second. MIT meanwhile has produced the world’s most powerful magnet to keep the super-hot plasma pellet in position.

Indeed, the science is very hard, the engineering nigh impossible, but the rewards are potentially enormous: carbon-less almost free energy for all – if commercialisation and distribution are worked out. And although energy is abundant in this part of the world, it will still make environmental sense to explore the opportunities.

Researchers recognise that it is too big a task for any country to crack this nut, so multi-country collaborations have emerged. Among the most important ones to date, and still in existence, is the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, the result of an agreement between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev.

Eagle-eyed historians will immediately note the context: fusion science is not exactly new. Indeed, the early concepts date as far back as the 1950s. Much fusion research and development followed globally during a period of time when electricity consumption increased by multiples in a number of countries, most notably the US. Given the complexity of the task, fusion had consistently and frustratingly been referred to as always being 30 years away. And that has been true throughout. Now, the urgency and the promise have meant that both public and private money has poured into fusion research and development and an industry association for the fusion sector has emerged. It may well be that the global efforts are chipping away at the 30-year future and it no longer represents moving goal posts.

To get humanity there will take three important steps.

First, investment – both public and private money – some tens of billions of dollars. As a commentator in an online forum put it: “Fusion research should be on humanity’s top five priority list, and it’s cheap: it’s five days of the US Federal Reserve’s Quantitative easing. We can afford it.” One can challenge the exact amounts but the affordability and urgency in the current context should be clear.

If the funding is in place, the second step, the hard science, will also eventually be overcome. For decades fusion has been progressing steadily and slowly as each technical challenge is addressed. The inflection point reached now with ignition is critical and will likely accelerate some of the other approaches to fusion.

And so, the third step is time. For years, fusion had been referred to as the technology of the future that never came. It has been 70 years in the making.

Think that’s a long time? For building a device that can safely smash atoms at 100 million degrees, re-creating the sun on earth and harvesting more energy than was put in for this reaction? Well, next time you see an incandescent light bulb, the one with the filament inside that heats up and creates light, you might appreciate that it took Joseph Swan and Thomas Edison 30 years to develop a filament that could be used commercially in bulbs. Fusion deserves our patience. But what it needs is money, thought and time.

Updated: September 16, 2021, 7:00 AM