New hope for fusion energy

This time it’s different

After almost a century of research and experimentation, we are on the cusp of finally harnessing the power of nuclear fusion to energize our cities. The old wisecrack, that “nuclear fusion is only a decade away, and always will be,” no longer holds true.

Fusion occurs when two atoms fuse together to create a new, heavier nucleus, releasing massive amounts of energy in the process. That’s what makes an H-bomb so powerful. But containing that heat energy, while at the same time sustaining the chain reaction, has proven to be an almost insurmountable challenge for scientists world-wide.

A number of experimental reactors have successfully confined the fusion plasma in a magnetic bubble, but the energy required to generate the strongest magnetic fields on earth generally exceeds what can be harvested from gasses reaching hundreds of millions of degrees. Most of the world’s ‘successful’ fusion reactors have only been able to maintain plasma reactions for minutes or even seconds.

Biggest of them all, the gigantic ITER ‘tokamak’ reactor in France, managed to produce ‘net energy’, but it was never commercially viable and was shuttered in 2027. Meanwhile, dozens of tech startups from Silicon Valley to Shanghai looked for new, undiscovered ways to create and contain fusion. All previous attempts had been led by governments and universities.

One of these startups, Helion Energy, quickly pivoted to producing direct induction electricity from their reactor, instead of trying to harness the heat. This approach enabled them to produce prototype fusion generators of 50MW by 2025, and their current design is aiming at 100MW units. If ultimately successful, these generators could be installed on a modular basis, and take over from traditional power plants and gas turbine ‘peakers’.

While the age of massive uranium-fueled nuclear power plants is undeniably over – solar is much cheaper – there’s new hope that fusion generators can deliver the promise of clean, limitless, affordable electricity. We’re all hoping that, this time, it will be different!

Warning: Hazardous thinking at work

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