Fusion Sparks an Energy Revolution


In 2024, fusion technology will finally make the transition from basic research to commercial application. The reason for that will be the construction and completion of the first commercial fusion demonstrators. These cutting-edge facilities are smaller than fusion power plants. For instance, a laser-based fusion demonstrator might use five to ten laser beams, while a commercial power plant can use several hundred. However, they have a crucial role—to prove that fusion technology works on a small scale, paving the way for the construction of larger fusion-power plants. In 2024, they will do just this, starting to build devices that will finally achieve the elusive goal of energy gain– in other words, outputting more energy than the quantity needed to kickstart the fusion process. Hitting this milestone is a critical step in addressing the steeply increasing global energy demand, as fusion energy has the potential to provide an abundant, carbon-free source of power.

In 2022, researchers at the National Ignition Facility (NIF) in California became the first to demonstrate experimentally that a fusion process could indeed produce a net energy gain. This experiment used high-power lasers to deposit energy in a small fuel target—a millimeter-sized capsule containing frozen deuterium and tritium—creating the conditions for fusion to occur. The lasers delivered 2.05 megajoules of energy to the target, resulting in a fusion energy production of 3.1 megajoules. This was a scientific experiment—unlike fusion demonstrators, the NIF is not designed to operate continuously like a power plant. However, as a result of this scientific breakthrough, nuclear fusion has attracted considerable research, political, and investor attention in recent months.

National fusion strategies have been developed in the US, UK, Japan, Germany, and other countries to advance research and testing of the technology. Currently, the US and the UK are leading the race: The US Department of Energy funds fusion research with an annual budget of about $1.4 billion and encourages private enterprises to accelerate commercialization. The UK similarly fosters public-private partnership by raising a fusion cluster with universities and companies combining their expertise. High-profile investors recognize the opportunity of fusion technology, with over $5 billion of private capital flowing into fusion companies in the last two years.

The initiatives are bearing fruit: Several fusion companies worldwide, including Commonwealth Fusion Systems, Helion Energy, and General Fusion have announced plans to begin constructing facilities in 2024 to demonstrate their technological approach. According to the latest report by the Fusion Industry Association, over half of all fusion companies believe that fusion energy will be delivered to the public power grid during the 2030s. In May 2023, Microsoft signed a power purchase agreement with Helion Energy, to secure a supply of fusion-generated electricity by 2028. In August 2023, Marvel Fusion (a fusion energy firm I cofounded) announced a partnership with Colorado State University worth $150 million, the largest public-private partnership to date, with the aim of building the only laser facility tailored to a commercial laser-based fusion technology and the most powerful short-pulse laser system in the world. With these advances and commitments in place, 2024 is set to show that fusion is no longer a distant dream but an achievable future of clean and sustainable energy.



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