Updated: Jun 23
On December 13th, 2022, a breakthrough was announced by US scientists. Nuclear Fusion, the “holy grail” of energy production, had finally produced more energy than was put in. After decades of pursuing the potential source of near-limitless clean energy, physicists had finally made headway.
Unlike Nuclear fission, nuclear fusion produces far more energy, and only small amounts of waste. Fusion works by taking pairs of light atoms and using powerful lasers to force them together – generating temperatures of up to 100 million degrees – until there is a pop, like a kernel of popcorn and the two atoms combine to form a single, heavier one. Yet the total mass of the new atom is less than that of the two that formed it; That excess mass is released as energy, and it is that energy that powers the stars. And most importantly, the process produces no greenhouse gas emissions and therefore does not contribute to climate change. That’s what’s got everyone so excited. That, and the fact that by harnessing the power of nuclear fission, we are technically harnessing the same energy that powers the Sun.
But (and there’s always a but) there is still a long road ahead before nuclear fission can power our cities, let alone a toaster. Billions of dollars and decades of research later, the end is far from sight. Building hardware to withstand the extreme conditions necessary to create fusion is its own challenge. Managing such massive experiments has also been a struggle. ITER, the world’s largest fusion project, currently under construction, started with an initial cost estimate of 6.6 billion euros, which has since more than tripled. It began construction in 2007 and its first experiments are set to begin in 2025. Even if it does reach this target, it would probably take another decade to build the first commercial plant, and further decades until fusion can match the output of wind and solar. Again, that puts us well past 2050, and still nowhere near net zero. The prospect of limitless, clean energy may slowly be turning into a possibility, but is it a viable solution to the immediate climate crisis?
Michael Liebreich, founder of New Energy Finance, thinks not. Instead, he points towards the technologies already available to us. Surprisingly, there is a commercial technology that surpasses the breakthrough of fusion by approximately 400 times. For instance, supplying 300mj of electricity to a contemporary domestic heat pump would produce approximately quadruple the amount of heat. Wind and solar power, in fact, provide the perfect illustration of why we need to start rolling out existing clean technologies even before they are fully competitive. First, what we learn from building wind and solar facilities at scale is at least as important as lab research in driving down costs. Second, the decades it takes for new energy and transport technologies to get to global scale means we cannot afford to wait. By 2026, global renewable electricity capacity is forecast to rise more than 60% from 2020 levels to over 4 800 GW – equivalent to the current total global power capacity of fossil fuels and nuclear combined. Does all this mean we should prioritize such technologies and forget about Fusion? Not exactly. According to Liebreich, “we shouldn’t stop investing in potential breakthrough technologies, far from it...the point is that we need to be realistic about how long new energy technologies take to reach a scale relevant to the problem of climate change. We have no choice but to deploy the technologies we have today if we are to stay on track.”
Furthermore, there are already major barriers to a rapid rollout of renewable energy, and nuclear fusion risks adding to an already long and costly line of defunct projects. According to Professor Mark Jacobson of Stanford University, way too much money in the US “was spent on carbon capture, small modular nuclear reactors, biofuels, blue hydrogen. These are all what I consider almost useless, or very low-use, technologies in terms of solving the problems. And yet, a lot of money is spent on them. Why? Because there are big lobby groups.” Unfortunately, Jacobson is right. Our current climate legislation, led by altruistic billionaires and lobbyists, has not nearly been decisive enough to save the planet; fusion will do nothing to help that.
Ultimately, whether you think Fusion is a waste of time, or the solution to all our problems, its enormous potential makes it hard to ignore. It’s a technology that could provide an immense and steady torrent of electricity. However, we have already run out of time. As exciting as it is, scaling up existing low-carbon technologies is ultimately the most effective way to achieve the necessary reductions in greenhouse gas emissions in the short term. Policymakers, business leaders, and investors need to take urgent action to accelerate the deployment of these technologies and to work together to achieve a low-carbon future.