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  • Sonja Colford

Fusion Frontier: Unleashing Limitless Energy



Written by: Sonja Colford

Edited by: Shelby Deegan


In the unyielding race toward carbon neutrality, the promises of nuclear fusion stand apart from the rest. A scientific marvel, the same process that powers the sun and stars of the solar system may soon be the key to powering our ever-growing global grid. From just a few grams of easily obtainable resources, enough energy could be produced to sustain “one person in a developed country…over 60 years” (Chatzis & Barbarino, 2020). Unlike other renewables, such as solar and wind, that depend on environmental or temporal conditions to function, nuclear fusion energy may be generated at any time, in virtually any environment. And unlike fission, its sister reaction, fusion does not produce radioactive waste, or present a risk of meltdown (Brasch et al., 2023). Countless companies are working toward a more sustainable fusion future, including the company Commonwealth Fusion Systems, who are currently working on SPARC, their pioneering fusion system prototype. Nuclear fusion, a reaction in the nascent stages of widespread application, is the path forward in achieving a sustainable energy system, driven by the urgency of a decarbonising world.


FISSION VS FUSION

When considering nuclear power, what comes to mind? A world-shattering explosion? A vast expanse of toxic wasteland? Nuclear fission, the process by which an atom’s nucleus is split into multiple nuclei, releasing significant amounts of energy, is the primary reaction used in nuclear warheads. Its safety concerns are of such importance, in fact, that Germany officially phased out nuclear electric power plants as of April 2023, much to the dismay of climate activists (Clifford, 2023). The country was struck with radioactive fallout during the infamous Chernobyl reactor disaster, and professor of renewable energy at Hochscule für Technik und Wirtschaft Berlin speculates that a domestic nuclear incident could “make large parts of the country uninhabitable” (Clifford, 2023). With the Ukraine war raging, and access to energy dwindling in Europe, they kept the plants producing electricity for a little while longer, however ultimately determined that the looming threat of nuclear disaster was not worth it – that “no insurance in the world covers the potentially catastrophic extent of damage from a nuclear accident” (Clifford, 2023). The fission – or nuclear splitting – reactions are at the heart of the issue, posing a threat to the safety and well-being of society.

Fusion, on the other hand, is a process that releases colossal amounts of energy - almost four times that of fission - through the conjoining of two atomic nuclei (Chatzis & Barbarino, 2020). Since the 1950s, it has become an international project, with the second United Nations International Conference on the Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy in 1958 kicking off an era of global collaboration. Since then, scientists, engineers, and politicians alike have worked tirelessly to reap the benefits of nuclear fusion. To recreate a fusion reaction here on Earth, similar to those occurring in our solar system, immense amounts of heat are needed – more than 100 million degrees Celsius – in order to compensate for Earth’s lack of gravitational force that naturally triggers fusion on the sun. Additionally, the reaction takes place in the fourth state of matter: plasma, posing another hurdle for firms to develop and market. Its two ingredients, however, are cheap and abundant – deuterium, which can be extracted from seawater, and tritium, which comes from lithium (Chatzis & Barbarino, 2020). Once companies can overcome the difficult conditions required to stimulate fusion, it has potential to become one of the most sustainable forms of renewable energy known to man.


NET ENERGY

One of the central reasons that nuclear power is so revolutionary is the concept of net energy. This is the idea that a reaction can produce more energy than that which was required to initiate it in the first place (Stein, 2024). While firms have not yet reached this groundbreaking threshold, advances in fusion and plasma physics research are paving the way (Chatzis & Barbarino, 2020). In the world of clean energy, its applications are infinite. Net energy not only means a sustainable future, but also a future where energy production has inherent value (Stein, 2024). From a solely scientific standpoint, net energy means that the ratio of energy acquired to energy supplied is high (Stein, 2024). However, from a more economic stance, net energy means taking into account extensive cost-benefit analysis, and coming to the same conclusion (Stein, 2024). Carbon Collective defines net energy generation (NEG) as the amount of usable energy created after subtracting all inputs used to create it, expanding inputs to cover more abstract or indirect contributions such as capital, land use, and investment. A prevalence of net energy, whether the raw scientific kind, the more economic kind, or a bit of both, will undoubtedly mean the shift from spontaneous, quick-fix energy production to long-term, valuable energy generation.


COMMONWEALTH FUSION SYSTEMS

There are 440 nuclear reactors in 30 different countries (Jawerth, 2020). 54 more are under construction. Commercial fusion is a project that has long been underway, and several companies stand at the precipice of a breakthrough in the market. The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) is an international noncommercial entity working to build the world's largest tokamak – a confinement device that uses a magnetic field to secure plasma in the shape of a torus – in France. This torus, or doughnut-like shape, helps to enclose the plasma particles, promoting the conditions necessary for fusion (U.S. Department of Energy). Several nuclear plants are even being engineered for non-electric purposes, like hydrogen production, something which can contribute to decarbonising other industries (Jawerth, 2020). From Tokamak Energy based in the U.K. to General Fusion of Canada, all firms understand one thing: they cannot hope to achieve fusion success without massive reliance on international cooperation.

Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS) is no different. The Massachusetts-based company has a deep understanding of what it means to harness fusion energy, taking an approach grounded in decades of empirical research. Their tokamak, nicknamed SPARC, which they are working on alongside MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center, is set to be the first net energy fusion device. Incorporating their very own magnet technology, CFS’s innovative techniques set them apart. Once SPARC has been successfully completed, their next goal is ARC: “the world’s first fusion power plant capable of producing net electricity” (Commonwealth Fusion Systems, 2023). For the world to reach these milestones, collaboration and innovation are of paramount importance.

A product of such collaboration is MIT and CFS’s invention: High-temperature superconducting (HTS) magnets. At the crux of commercial fusion success, these magnets allow for the production of significantly stronger magnetic fields, thereby reducing the necessary size of fusion systems (CFS, 2023). Cutting system sizes is key to commercialisation. Another key is, of course, technological optimisation. Thanks to Alcator C-Mod, MIT’s resident tokamak, much research and experimentation on plasma physics has informed SPARC innovation, maximising SPARC’s success (CFS, 2023). C-Mod, the world’s only high-magnetic tokamak, makes it the subject of international experimentation and wonder (Marmar, 2024).

Highlighting CFS’s global approach further are countless partnerships, agreements, and publications. In 2022, CFS and Atomic Energy of the U.K. established a Fusion Energy Cooperative Agreement. The same year, CFS starred in the 64th Annual Meeting of the APS Division of Plasma Physics (American Physical Society, 2022). Since 2021, they have won U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) awards and funding for partnerships with national and international labs and universities. In 2023, they established a partnership with renowned Italian energy company Eni. With C-Mod as its role model, in-house inception of HTS magnets, and an international team of cutting-edge researchers, engineers, and scientists working together through partnerships and global initiatives, commercial fusion transcends singular firms; nuclear fusion energy is undoubtedly on the brink of changing the world.


A NEW DAWN

Nuclear fusion is a unique paradigm for solving the energy crisis. Unlike wind or solar, fusion does not require light or air, nor does it offer merely fleeting respite from the relentless energy demands of modern society. In addition, well-warranted concerns of explosion and radioactive waste do not accompany fusion. Rather, once developed, fusion will provide a framework for sustaining the globe, starting with electricity. It has already proven useful in hydrogen production, and the future will see what else it is capable of. Moreover, its achievement of net energy will further both scientific and economic goals, helping to scale back the energy crisis into something manageable. CFS is just one of many firms at the forefront of capitalising on the great wealth this technology has to offer. Nuclear fusion’s sheer potential for truly limitless energy positions it as a transformative player in the energy ring, and the climate arena at large.


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References:

American Physical Society (2022). 64th Annual Meeting of the APS Division of Plasma Physics. Bulletin of the American Physical Society, Vol. 67, Number 15. https://meetings.aps.org/Meeting/DPP22/Session/BM10.4


Brasch, B., Rempfer, K., & Osaka, S. (2023). U.S. lab says it repeated fusion energy feat – with higher yield. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/climate-solutions/2023/08/06/nuclear-fusion-net-energy-gain-higher-yield/


Chatzis, I., & Barbarino, M. (2020). What is Fusion, and Why Is It So Difficult to Achieve? International Atomic Energy Agency Bulletin, Nuclear Power and the Clean Energy Transition, Vol. 61-3. https://www.iaea.org/bulletin/what-is-fusion-and-why-is-it-so-difficult-to-achieve


Clifford, C. (2023). Germany has shut down its last three nuclear power plants, and some climate scientists are aghast. CNBC. https://www.cnbc.com/2023/04/18/germany-shuts-down-last-nuclear-power-plants-some-scientists-aghast.html


Commonwealth Fusion Systems. https://cfs.energy/


Jawerth, N. (2020). What is the Clean Energy Transition and How Does Nuclear Power Fit In? International Atomic Energy Agency Bulletin, Nuclear Power and the Clean Energy Transition, Vol. 61-3. https://www.iaea.org/bulletin/what-is-the-clean-energy-transition-and-how-does-nuclear-power-fit-in


Marmar, E. (2024). Alcator C-Mod tokamak. Plasma Science and Fusion Center, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. https://www.psfc.mit.edu/research/topics/alcator-c-mod-tokamak#:~:text=C%2DMod%20holds%20the%20record,important%20metric%20for%20fusion%20performance.


Office of Science - DOE Explains...Tokamaks. (n.d.). Department of Energy. https://www.energy.gov/science/doe-explainstokamaks


Stein, Z. (2024). Net Energy Generation (NEG). Carbon Collective. https://www.carboncollective.co/sustainable-investing/net-energy-generation-neg

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