The breakthrough in fusion energy is coming closer—if Denmark wants to participate, we need to get on board now
The Fusion Age is a quickly growing concept that we in Denmark will soon have to acknowledge.
Wednesday 24 May 2023
Column by senior scientist Søren Bang Korsholm, DTU Physics. Published in Energy Supply May 2023.
The Fusion Age—well, you probably haven’t seen that term before, and I haven’t written it before either. But ‘The Fusion Age’ is a quickly growing concept that we in Denmark will soon have to acknowledge. In the last few years, an almost disruptive development has taken place in the human quest to decipher nature’s fundamental energy source, fusion energy. The fusion power plants that even we fusion researchers believed were at least 30 years away are now much closer to becoming a reality.
But first, let’s take a quick look at what fusion energy is and why the evidence is pointing to an imminent beginning of what we will call the Fusion Age in the human energy history.
Fusion energy is more commonly known as the energy form of the Sun and the stars. It is the fundamental energy process of the universe, and we are completely dependent on fusion processes in the Sun’s interior. Fusion energy occurs when light atomic nuclei, such as hydrogen, fuse and become larger atomic nuclei, such as helium. During such a nuclear process, the nucleons (protons and neutrons) of the nuclei come into a configuration where they are more tightly bound to each other than they were in the original atomic nuclei. In nuclear physics, this is called a change in binding energy, and it is this energy released in a fusion process that we experience as sunlight.
Technology has often achieved optimal solutions by imitating nature, so why not imitate the wildest and most fundamental thing in nature?
A copy of the sun
What would it mean if we succeed in creating a fusion power plant? In short: 25 grams of fuel will be enough for a lifelong supply of energy for one European. Moreover, the fuel can be extracted from seawater and lithium, and the resources in the world’s oceans can cover humanity’s energy consumption for over a billion years. The fusion power plant will be completely safe, and in addition, the waste products are helium (harmless) and a limited amount of radioactive waste, which can be recycled after just 100 years.
It sounds like a fantastic idea, and the obvious question is: Why don’t we build such a power plant now? Well, we must admit that it is not exactly a humble ambition to want to copy the Sun. In order to achieve optimal fusion conditions for the fuel, we need to approach 200,000,000°C, or about 15 times the temperature of the centre of the Sun. It sounds extreme, and it is—but we’ve done it!
There are two main methods in fusion energy. One is to trap a very small amount of fuel in a strong magnetic field cage inside a large vacuum chamber. In the experiments we have conducted so far, however, the energy loss through the magnetic field has been too great to create a surplus of fusion effect.
Therefore, the EU, the US, Japan, India, China, Russia, and South Korea have joined forces to build ITER, the world’s largest fusion experiment, which in 2035 will demonstrate that we can hold onto a gram of artificial sun that produces 500MW while heating with just 50MW. Thus, in public research, we expect ITER to be the last step before a prototype fusion power plant.
The second method is laser fusion. In December 2022, the US National Ignition Facility announced that for the first time in the history of science, they had produced a surplus of fusion energy by firing 192 laser beams at a millimetre-sized fuel pellet and creating conditions like those inside the Sun in a split second.
They obtained 150 per cent energy compared to the energy they put into the pellet. It’s a big deal (!), and although it’s still far from a laser fusion power plant, it was an important signal to both science, politicians, the press, and the public: We’re getting really close to copying the Sun.
These are certainly significant advances, but the big changes in the fusion world are happening in the private sector right now. A good example is Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS), a spin-out from MIT in Boston, Massachusetts. Their reactor concept builds on research from MIT and is a tokamak (like ITER) with very powerful superconducting magnetic field coils.
The concept is more compact and flexible, and CFS aims to build a demonstration power plant in a few years, which according to their business plan will deliver electricity to the US grid in the early 2030s. CFS has raised over USD 2 billion in the past five years, primarily from private investors, capital funds, and pension funds.
In early March 2023, CFS entered into a new collaboration agreement with one of the world’s largest energy companies, Eni, which is also a major investor in CFS. Top politicians from both the state and federal levels attended the recent inauguration. The US Secretary of Energy, Jennifer Granholm, was the keynote speaker—yes, the Secretary of Energy, not the Research minister.
CFS is a really interesting company, and perhaps the one I personally believe in the most, but they are far from alone. There are now over 30 companies around the world (mostly in the US and UK) pursuing their own ways of developing a fusion reactor concept. They have established their own interest group, the Fusion Industry Association, which is interesting to follow. FIA’s members have received a total of USD 5 billion in private investments.
Governments are also stepping up their game. The US government has just released the budget proposal for 2024, increasing the funding for fusion research by 32 per cent to USD 1 billion. China has long been working on the BEST and CFETR projects, which are under construction, while also participating in ITER. The European Commission is also aware of the rapid development and is calling for an updated and accelerated roadmap for European fusion energy.
The danish contribution
Does all this mean that we are close to the fusion age? That is what more and more people believe. And they are also investing their own money. What if they are right? Is Denmark ready to participate in the fusion age?
Regardless of whether private fusion companies are right in their optimism or not, it is a fact that the supply chains for fusion facilities are being founded and consolidated now and in the coming years. If future fusion experiments and later power plants are to contain Danish technology and know-how, we need to step up now. And do we have something to offer? My answer is a resounding yes.
There is certainly potential for significant Danish contributions within both the natural and engineering and scientific research in areas such as plasma physics, fusion measurement systems, robotics, artificial intelligence, and material research. There are also several Danish companies that already supply high-tech equipment to fusion facilities.
Finally, a look at Denmark’s most important element: great minds—the prerequisite for a field in development. The potential here is very good, as the interest in fusion energy from young students and researchers from other fields is steadily increasing. Over the past two years, more than 3,000 high school students have learned about fusion energy, and new research network DANfusion has been formed by four Danish universities to increase our involvement in fusion research.
Nevertheless, the potential will not be fulfilled by itself. The Danish fusion communities—both scientifically and commercially—are close to being world leading in a number of areas. And while the know-how, willingness, and abilities are there, the research communities and industrial capacity are not yet large enough to realize the potential and muster a significant Danish contribution to the fusion age. It will require significant investment, both from industry, foundations, and nationally. But can we afford not to?