President Biden wants the warmth of many suns to power American homes and businesses.
The White House held a summit yesterday on fusion, which could one day become the leading source of carbon-free energy. Fusion works by pressing atoms together to create heavier atoms. Nuclear fusion is the energy process that powers stars, with low radiation and a huge energy output.
Critics have long claimed that scientifically feasible but commercially challenging fusion energy sources are decades away from powering homes or businesses. But the Biden administration and a growing number of risk-taking investors see fusion as an important tool for achieving a net-zero greenhouse gas emissions economy by 2050.
“We can lead the world with new energy and innovation, and that’s exactly what we’re doing and why we’re here today,” said White House climate adviser Gina McCarthy. “We must act on climate change so that we Only nations can win the economy of the 21st century, and that’s what convergence helps show us — the great opportunities and challenges we know.”
Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said the Department of Energy will now coordinate all of its fusion energy research to advance the technology’s “possible” deployment by the end of the century.
Congress’s latest $1.5 trillion appropriations bill includes $45 million for a new fusion program, in which private companies will partner with the U.S. Department of Energy to build new fusion energy facilities. This is part of a record-breaking fusion investment that will provide more than $700 million in funding for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Fusion Energy Science Program.
But Granholm has lowered expectations for when fusion will be deployed as a new carbon-free energy source.
“We also have to manage expectations. Convergence is hard for a reason. So it will take time: even if we make amazing progress, we have to be careful about over-promising, we have to be realistic,” she said.
Nonetheless, the last year alone has seen a series of milestones in fusion energy research.
A Chinese project achieved a 17-minute fusion reaction at 126 million degrees Fahrenheit (five times hotter than the sun), according to the White House. The U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory achieves a “burning plasma” reaction, the first demonstration at any research facility of a fusion reaction in which the process produces more energy than the one that triggered it energy required (energy line, January 27). A European effort has achieved a high-power pulse of 5 seconds, doubling it and breaking a 24-year record.
The White House campaign features fusion energy as a complement to renewables in the energy grid of the future.
“We need robust energy sources that you can turn on when the wind isn’t blowing and the sun isn’t shining,” said Steven Cowley, director of the Princeton Plasma Physics Library.
The White House sees its push for integration as part of Biden’s pledge to use climate policy as job creation. According to the White House, there are more than 30 fusion companies around the world, most of which were founded in the past decade, and about two-thirds of them are based in the United States.
“Really Big Bet”
The booming fusion industry has attracted nearly $5 billion in capital funding in recent years, with nearly $3 billion in 2021 alone, according to investment information compiled by data firm PitchBook.
The event invited some of the leaders of investors and business leaders looking to profit from a major emissions-free energy breakthrough.
Carly Anderson, a partner at the Prime Movers Lab, said fusion energy is “exciting and will solve the problem of climate change”. “But we’re here because there’s a real opportunity to create a 21st century economy, and we want to be a part of that.”
Her venture capital firm has Invest At Commonwealth Fusion Systems, its CEO also spoke at the White House event, as well as another fusion startup, Focused Energy.
Other backers of convergence include major investment firms such as Goldman Sachs Group Inc., BlackRock and KKR & Co. Inc., as well as the sovereign wealth funds of Singapore, Kuwait and Malaysia, according to PitchBook data.
“One of the main contributors to the growth of all these companies is the growth in fund size,” said AJ Kantor, Zap Energy’s chief of staff. Fund managers now “need to make big bets” to get decent returns on their investments, she said.
“It’s one of the few industries where a real boulder company can be built,” Cantor added. That potential upside and growing pool of investment money “really translates into venture capital being willing to put money into these things,” she said.
The White House panel also includes the heads of Helion Energy, which was founded in 2013 and is currently valued at more than $3.7 billion, and TAE Technologies, a Google-backed fusion pioneer that has been trying to commercialize the process since 1998 (climate line24 August 2020).
“Some of the companies around me, and others across the country and around the world, are building proof-of-concept machines — machines that will prove that fusion works,” said Andrew Holland, CEO of the Fusion Industry Association. “We call it the Kitty Hawk moment: not when you sell the plane, but when the plane takes off.”
Holland predicts that the main challenge facing the industry in the 2030s will not be “a scientific problem or even an engineering problem, but a manufacturing problem. How fast can you build?”
Other panelists were more cautious about setting lofty expectations that the industry may not be able to meet.
“The reason convergence always seems to come 20 years later is because there’s a hype cycle where people keep getting disappointed,” said Zap Energy’s Kantor. “If we miss those goals, we’re looking at continuing the adage. So it’s time Keep us busy.”
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