How Fast Will Fusion’s Promise Come True?
According to the 2022 report of the Fusion Industry Association (FIA), there are three dozen fusion energy startups which in total are attracting billions of dollars in investor commitments.
Clearly, people who are very smart, and have a lot of money to put down on energy investments, are betting that the promise of fusion will be realized within the next decade or two. However, the UK Atomic Energy Agency (UKAEA) is targeting operation of its first prototype in the early 2040s so timelines differ. This is a big improvement over the almost comical estimate of past decades that fusion is still 50 years in the future. Obviously, something has changed.
The private sector thinks the shorter timelines are more likely as indicated by how much money is flowing into the fusion industry. According to surveys of investments in fusion companies cited by FIA, by the end of 2022 the total in 2022 is estimated to be approximately $4.7 to $5.0 billion in investment that went into private sector fusion firms. Not all investments have been made public. Many of the firms that have received theses funds have follow-on commitments from investors based on making progress to meet specific technical milestones.
Despite the confidence of asset managers in committing funds, no fusion company in 2022 has what is loosely called a “shovel ready” technical design that can be sold to a commercial electric generation utility. The best estimates of experts who have looked at the fusion energy startup are that commercial projects will be ready by the mid-2030s or possibly sooner according to some of the industry leaders.
Fusion v. Fission?
Most of the fusion designs coming off the drawing boards, compared to large, full size nuclear reactors that can produce 1,000 MW of electrical power, are actually in the range of small modular reactors (SMRs) e/g., less than 300 MW. Unlike small modular nuclear reactors (SMRs), based on fission of uranium, few of the planned fusion plants have designs that will cost less than $1 billion
While many of the SMR fission designs are also still, for the most part, in the development stages, the expected cost of 100 MW SMR at $4,500/Kw comes in at $450 million. The competitive issue relative to fusion is one of apples and oranges in some instances, but one clear difference is that the fusion designs can deliver, according to some estimates, four times the power of comparable nuclear fission reactors. Also, fusion plants don’t have the safety risks of meltdowns and radioactive waste disposal problems of fission designs.
Key technical challenges facing fusion developers fall in three broad categories that have to be solved in a definitive manner.
- Producing and maintaining a self-heating burning plasma
- Developing materials that can withstand neutron bombardment over the plant’s lifetime, e.g., 40-60 years or longer
- Getting the plasma heat out of the fusion space to generate electricity or for industrial process heat
Two key types of design approaches are common among the three dozen firms described in the FIA report. The first is the Tokamak which uses bursts of power. There are several different approaches to Tokamaks to achieve these results. Apparently, there are multiple methods to achieve 50 to 100 million degree Celsius of plasma heat. The second design concept is the stellarator which is a steady state design. Industry experts tell this blog the design will be more challenging to build, but if successful, may be easier to operate.
Key enabling technologies cited by several of the tokamak developers include;
- Advances in 3D printing that make for quicker and cheaper components
- Development of super conducting magnets to control the plasma but not all tokamaks use magnets
- Super computing to calculate best methods and engineering designs for creating and sustaining the plasma
- Advanced materials need for the construction of fusion machines
- New control room instruments and operator interfaces needed for fusion machines
Ten Tough Questions for Fusion Developers
Because fusion developers are in a race to develop unique, first of a kind fusion designs, and because the cost of their efforts have required and will continue to require hundreds or even billions of investors dollars and government financial support, claims made about progress need to be looked at closely. No fusion developer wants investors to be put off by unanswered questions about the challenges they face to achieve success. So here are ten questions for fusion developers.
- How close is [your firm] to demonstrating core temperatures and pressure conditions for the fusion energy produced to exceed the heating energy injected into the reactions. When will you be able to build a working prototype that will sustain a fusion process?
- The firm has committed to an ambitious set of milestones with plans to break ground and to have an operating facility by a specific date. Are these plans realistic given the first of a kind technology that you committed to for [your] design?
- Why did [your firm] choose the specific technology that is the basis for your firm’s design? What technological and economic benefits accrue from this unique design approach?
- Has [your firm] confirmed, or do you have a target date for confirming, the required performance requirements of all of the components that have to work exactly as designed to make the firm’s design a success?
- What are the key economic measures [your firm] will evaluate to prove to investors the design and prototype will scale to a viable commercial solution?
- For many of the developers listed in the FIA report, the planned electrical output is less than 300 MW which is the upper threshold of small modular fission reactors.
At $4,500/Kw such an SMR (300 MW) would cost just over $1 billion. Can the firm produce fusion plants (in volume) that could be competitive with that cost figure? Can the firm make the case that a commercial version of the design can be operated in a reliable manner so that the utility customer can make a profit?
- What regulatory challenges does your firm expect to face in the UK and in the US?
- What is the firm doing to develop a global supply chain and how will suppliers qualify to use fusion specific standards like fission’s NQA-1 for production of components for the machine? Right now almost all the major components of the design are custom built. Is there a plan to move in a cost effective manner from bench scale prototypes to commercial production of multiple units?
- What is the current state of quality and safety standards for fusion machines, as compared to more stringent prescriptive regulatory requirements? Help or hinderance?
- What is the firm doing to develop a workforce to build and later operate your firm’s specific design of a fusion plant?
- Does the firm have expressions of interest from utilities for a fusion plant? What are utilities telling you about their interests – e.g., risks, financing, licensing, operations? For instance, Canada’s Bruce Power has an MOU with General Fusion to explore a possible joint development effort. Also, in Canada First Light Fusion has an agreement with the Canadian Nuclear Laboratory to design a tritium extraction systems. Multiple firms have agreements with the UK Atomic Energy Authority. There are similar relationships which exist or which are expected between other fusion developers and utilities and government R&D centers.
- What is the service life in years of your firm’s fusion machine, e.g., 40, 60, 80 years?
- At the end of life for your firm’s fusion machine’s service life how will it be decommissioned by the utility? How will some components that have been bombarded by neutrons over the service life the machine, and have become radioactive, be safely disposed of?
There are lots of other questions for fusion developers, but these ten seem like a good place to start.
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