- Build a Star, Save a Planet; New Book on Fusion – The Star Builders by Arthur Turrell
- Interview Q&A with the Author: What will it take for these startups to achieve commercial success?
The most important energy-making process in the universe takes place inside stars. The ability to duplicate that process in a lab, and to translate that bench scale result into a commercial success, once thought to be 50 years in the future, more or less out of reach, may now be much closer due to the efforts of a cadre of competitive nuclear fusion startups in the U.S,, the U.K. and elsewhere including China.
According to a new book about nuclear fusion, the possibility of a scientific breakthrough for it, with the prospect of commercialization, is coming faster than we think. There’s a big “but” in that forecast because, according to the author, the U.S. for already falling behind China in the development of this technology. Net energy gain is the objective which is that the fusion reactor puts out more energy than is put into it and can be sustained over long periods of time. Who gets there first is what the race for mastery is all about.
Arthur Turrell, who has a PhD in plasma physics from Imperial College London, has published a new book released August 3rd, titled, THE STAR BUILDERS: Nuclear Fusion and the Race to Power the Planet. Simon & Shuster ISBN13: 9781982130664
Turrell’s book introduces readers to the teams of scientists and engineers working to cross the commercial finish line and, as far as they are concerned, the sooner the better. The book isn’t a cheerleading puff piece. It includes interviews with some of the leading subject matter experts in the field.
For decades the line about fusion has been that it is still “50 years in the future.” Not any more writes Turell who equates the pace of progress for some of the fusion technologies coming off the drawing boards to the startling and very rapid progress made in the past year in creating and deploying COVID vaccines. Progress comes at you fast either way.
According to Turrell, artificial intelligence and breakthroughs in machine learning are key enabling methods that are bringing nuclear fusion closer to achieving net energy gain. This kind of computing power is important for managing the processes to be controlled in the complex machines being built.
And those who are already positioning themselves to capitalize on these new developments aren’t small-time either: Jeff Bezos, Peter Thiel, Lockheed Martin, Goldman Sachs, and Chevron have been linked to fusion schemes. (See “5 Big Ideas for Making Fusion a Reality,” Spectrum IEEE, 01/28/20)
Power plants for generation of electricity that do not produce CO2 is one of the key objectives of these startups. The use of fusion energy system for space travel is also on the horizon. Here are some examples of the startups.
Jeff Bezo’s firm General Fusion, which is based in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, made an announcement last month in London saying that a $400M demonstration plant to prove the operational features of the firm’s fusion design would break ground in 2022 at a site in Oxfordshire near the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy. Operations are expected to being within three years of breaking ground. See prior coverage on this blog:, Fusion Emerges as a Key Factor in UK’s Energy Future
On July 27th Helion Energy announced July 27th it will build a facility in Everett, WA, to test the latest version of its “fusion energy” generator. The company last month said it made history when it became the first private company to create conditions exceeding 100 million degrees Celsius, the temperature necessary for fusion to occur. Helion intends to use the new facility to house the seventh prototype of its fusion reactor, and also to commercially produce helium 3 as a separate line of business.
Other developments include Commonwealth Fusion Systems, which has its origins in MIT research, has begun building a reactor in Massachusetts. TAE Technologies raised $280 million to build its next device.
According to Turrell between public and private efforts there are over 100 experimental fusion reactors built or under construction. (short list of industry leaders)
China Leads U.S. in Fusion Effort
The US fusion industry, however, is at risk of losing ground to a key competitor. China is investing enormous sums in fusion, and its advanced fusion reactor just set a world record.
According to Nuclear Engineering International, China’s Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (EAST) fusion reactor on May 28th achieved another world record by maintaining a plasma temperature at 120 million decrees Celsius for 101 seconds and at 160 million Celsius for 20 seconds, a major step toward the test run of the fusion reactor.
EAST is located at the Hefei Institutes of Physical Science of the Chinese Academy of Science (ASIPP) in Hefei. It is one of three major domestic tokamaks now in operation in China. China’s HL-2M tokamak fusion reactor at CNNC’s Southwestern Institute of Physics (SWIP) in Chengdu. Sichuan was commissioned in December 2020 – an upgrade the previous model, the HL-2A. The third is J-TEXT at the Huazhong University of Science and Technology (HUST).
China is reportedly making investments in the advanced space fusion propulsion sector including in fission and fusion contexts that surpass U.S. efforts. In response, a recent proposal by the Fusion Industry Association (FIA) provides further details this new space race and advocates for a $40 million Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA)-style program to accelerate the use of fusion for space travel.
U.S. Focus on Renewables Won’t Scale When it Comes to Combatting Climate Change
While China is in a headlong in pursuit of fusion energy here on earth and in outer space, Turrell says that bey comparison, in terms of addressing climate change, the emphasis in the US on renewable energy technologies isn’t going to work in terms of decarbonizing the electric generation sector. “It won’t scale,” he says. Plus, battery storage isn’t able to store enough power when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow.
Turrell says progress in nuclear energy to deal with climate change will be hampered by cost overruns and schedule delays of plants currently being built as well as the overhang of public perceptions based on the Fukushima and Chernobyl disasters.
While there is some validity to these views, they ignore the progress being made with small modular reactors and advanced reactor designs using TRISO and molten salt fuels. In this regard Turrell’s quick dismissal of nuclear energy may be driven a bit too much by his genuine excitement about fusion.
Praise for the Book
“A gobsmackingly good read…. Turrell’s portraits of the undaunted star-building scientists who are trying to make fusion a reality are not just compelling but, dare I say it, fun. I learned a lot by reading this book. You will, too.” — Robert Bryce, author of A Question of Power: Electricity and the Wealth of Nations
“Visionary thinkers have sketched a future of sustainable abundance based on skillful use of nuclear fusion, the process that powers the stars. Can we get there? How? When? The Star Builders surveys this vibrant frontier of science and technology clearly and realistically. It brings a timely, hopeful message.” — Frank Wilczek, Winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics and author of Fundamentals: Ten Keys to Reality
About the Author
Arthur Turrell has a PhD in plasma physics from Imperial College London and is the recipient of the Rutherford Prize for the Public Understanding of Plasma Physics. His research and writing has been featured in The Daily Mail, The Guardian, the International Business Times, Gizmodo, and other publications. He also works as a Senior Research Economist for the Bank of England where he is applying his scientific training to questions about the macroeconomy. He is the author of The Star Builders.
Neutron Bytes Interviews the Author of ‘The Star Builders’
Neutron Bytes exchanged emails with Arthur Turrell (right: Photo by Karen Hatch) asking him some questions that go beyond cheerleading and advocacy which delve into the practical issues of how to bring fusion power to market. Following is a slightly edited version of the Q&A email exchange.
Q: Why did General Fusion, which has offices in the US and Canada, decide to build in the UK?
A: First, the site that General Fusion picked, at Culham in Oxfordshire, is where the world’s most successful fusion reactor, the Joint European Torus (JET), is based. As well as JET, the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy hosts another reactor, MAST Upgrade, and various other facilities relevant to the fusion industry. Nearby, there are two private sector fusion firms: Tokamak Energy and First Light Fusion. So General Fusion will be joining a cluster, with all the benefits that brings.
Q: Given that General Fusion has chosen to build in the UK, what must happen in the US for other fusion start ups to consider building here as compared to the UK. What are the financial, regulatory, or other barriers that need to be addressed?
A: Although the UK is clearly an attractive place for fusion start-ups, there are a good number of firms in the US too: Commonwealth Fusion Systems, TAE Technologies, and Helion Energy to name but a few; the US is a major player. With regards to regulation, the single most important principle to recognize is that fusion is not fission.
In terms of other barriers, there is an amazing pool of fusion-savvy labor to draw on in Northern Europe thanks to several universities and laboratories in the UK, France, and Germany that are centers of excellence in the topic. If you visit Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, where the world’s leading laser-based fusion device is, you will find a lot of staff from these program.
Q: The fusion startup field is pretty crowded right now with at least of these dozen firms or more that have gotten their Series A funding and also follow on investments. What are the key success factors (technical, financial, operational) that have to be addressed by any of these firms to get to the finish line which is a commercially viable prototype?
A: In the short-run, I personally see the first goal as demonstrating that more energy can be released from fusion reactions than it takes to get the reactions going in the first place (known as ‘net energy gain’). This is a prerequisite for commercial viability and, as this feat has never been achieved by a public laboratory, it would bring widespread acclaim to any private sector fusion venture that did it first.
For both net energy gain and commercial viability, the metrics of technical success to watch are the temperature and the so-called ‘fusion triple product’ because achieving a high combination of these two values is key to releasing enough energy for commercial viability.
So far, government funded laboratories are ahead on these metrics. In terms of the financial metric of success, ultimately—for operating reactors—that will be the levelized cost of electricity: the average net present cost of electricity generation for a generating plant over its lifetime.
Q: Given the different technical approaches to the objective of sustaining a fusion reaction, are any of them more likely to succeed than others? If so why?
A: The two approaches that have so far had the most success are inertial confinement fusion using lasers and magnetic confinement fusion using a doughnut-shaped device called a ‘tokamak’. But those approaches have also had most of the attention and investment to date.
We don’t know if they are likely to be more successful than other approaches in the long run. The recent successes of the Wendelstein-7X (a type of device known as a stellarator) and the promising properties of ‘spherical’ tokamaks suggest the world should be pursuing many different avenues simultaneously if we want to find the optimal design for a fusion reactor.
Q: How will any of these firms staff their startups? Are there are universities that actually offer a 4-year technical degree in fusion energy? If none exist now, do you know of any that plan to start offering such a degree in the future?
A: As with any large-scale endeavor, lots of skills are needed to keep the ship afloat so not all staff will need experience in fusion energy. And, like many specialized industries, some people will come in with more general skills, say in physics or engineering or computing, and will learn the fusion-specific skills on the job.
Alongside these, there is a need for very deep knowledge of fusion too and indeed there are dedicated PhDs in fusion sciences around: I did a PhD in plasma physics and fusion at Imperial College London.
Also in the UK, the universities of Durham, Liverpool, Manchester, Oxford and York have teamed up to create a fusion ‘center for doctoral training’ that offers cohorts of students a four-year PhD program with plasma physics or materials science options and acts as a preparation for a career in fusion energy sciences.
Note: Turrell skipped answering a question about supply chains especially how these startups will move from custom built prototypes to factory production of long lead time components. Eventually, the startup that succeeds must not only prove that their technology works, the firm must also be able to specify and deliver a design that can be built on a commercial scale.
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