Nuclear fusion is the holy grail solution to our planet’s clean energy needs, but making it work smoothly and continuously is an immense challenge. There have been recent news announcements that describe achieving a major fusion power breakthrough at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL). Will this accomplishment pave the way to finally unlock this abundant energy resource and enable the future of clean power?
At ARC we are following the energy transition and the associated digital transformation, so we are always interested to follow the many sources of clean power generation that are competing for our energy future. Science has long known that nuclear fusion from plentiful hydrogen has the potential to provide a nearly unlimited source of clean power. The world has been impatiently waiting for scientists to find a way to unlock this power. Reaching this breakthrough gives us an indication we are making progress with the science but putting this accomplishment into context we still have a long way to go before we can engineer a fusion power plant.
What fusion breakthrough was achieved?
On December 5, a team at LLNL’s National Ignition Facility (NIF) ran a fusion experiment that produced more energy from a fusion reaction than the laser energy used to drive it. 2.05 megajoules (MJ) of laser energy was directed to the target, which released 3.15 MJ of fusion energy. The burst output of 192 laser beams focused on a tiny diamond sphere the size of a peppercorn to generate a shock wave that pushed hydrogen atoms close enough together to fuse. While the energy released from this fusion was greater than the laser energy that hit the peppercorn sized target, the overall energy balance is a net loss and is not ready to be scaled up.
The laser pulled more than 300 megajoules off the grid to produce about the 3.15 mega joules of heat released by the fusion reaction of deuterium and tritium. To reach overall energy balance feasibility, this approach would need to greatly improve the energy efficiency of the lasers and configure the reactor to result in more fusions to occur from this amount of laser energy. It should be noted that the inertial confinement method is only one of the approaches that scientists have been working on for the past 50 years.
How does this breakthrough help get us to a practical way to make abundant clean power?
Considering this fusion scheme needed 300 megajoules of grid power to make 2 megajoules of laser light there is a long way to go before we have a scalable reaction system to make power. A Fusion reactor will harvest heat energy much like fission or fossil plants to make steam and drive a steam turbine which will be connected to a generator to make electric power. The experience gained from learning how to focus lasers to make fusion happen may not be so applicable to the other approaches to achieving fusion which are not using lasers at all.
With energy prices on the rise, along with demands for energy independence and an urgent need for carbon-free power, plans to walk away from current fission based nuclear energy are now being revised in Japan, South Korea, and even Germany. More than 50 companies and organizations are working on new fission power reactors like the SMR (Small Modular Reactor). Some new nuclear reactor design concepts are in operation but many of the newest US and European designs are looking to make new nuclear fission power before 2030. An amazing number of firms are working to commercialize fusion reactors.
According to The Fusion Industry Association, there are more than 30 private companies pursuing fusion power. Fusion companies declared over $4.7bn of private funding to date, plus an additional $117 million in grants and other funding from governments, more than doubling the industries entire historic investment in a single year. Recent advances that increased plasma-based magnetic field strengths are improving the prospects of magnetic confinement approaches. Notable investments include a $1.8bn investment into Commonwealth Fusion Systems, $500m into Helion Energy and several company investments over $100m.
The $22Billion ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor) has been funded by many countries. It is the world's largest magnetic confinement plasma physics experiment and the largest experimental tokamak nuclear fusion reactor. ITER is being built in southern France and it will be the largest of more than 100 fusion reactors built since the 1950s. ITER's thermonuclear fusion reactor will use over 300 MW of electrical power to cause the plasma to absorb 50 MW of thermal power, creating 500 MW of heat from fusion. This would mean a ten-fold gain of plasma heating power (Q), as measured by heating input to thermal output. This will be a much greater achievement compared to the LLNL ratio of about 1.5. Additionally, the efficiency of converting external grid energy is impressive. The ITER is an experimental reactor, but once the concept is proven a commercial power reactor will need to be developed.
Today the utility industry is seeing the start of a massive expansion of SWB (Solar, Wind, and Batteries). The SWB approach will be very distributed and disruptive from a land use perspective. Baseload coal power is declining fast. Dispatchable natural gas peaking plants are also falling victim to SWB, although natural gas with CCUS could be a long-term solution for filling power gaps. If new power generation were purely SWB, some calculations indicate the grid would need to massively overbuild wind and solar (by a factor of 3 to 6 times the required power) to optimize the cost of expensive batteries. This is a very expensive option with the potential of wasted power from curtailment. The utility industry would welcome the spinning reserves offered by a nuclear power renaissance with fission power. The amount of money that has gone into developing conventional fission reactors and building the 438 reactors the world still operates is in the trillions of dollars.
There are also huge new investments from governments and private industry to design and build new safer and cheaper fission reactors, especially the SMR approach. Investors hope these new fission reactors will take off by 2030. There is no such timeline for fusion power reactors, and no way to estimate the cost until scientists have a working prototype. Fusion power overcomes the most concerning issues of fossil and fission power and would likely be widely accepted as it would be carbon free, safe from meltdowns, would not support nuclear weapon proliferation, and would not produce long lived radioactive wastes. Once scientists develop a protype fusion reactor well beyond break even energy, engineers have the challenge of building and operating the machinery that can make fusion power cost effective.
According to IEA, in 2022, we expect 46.1 gigawatts (GW) of new utility-scale electric generating capacity to be added to the U.S. power grid. About half of this is solar, 21% is natural gas and 17% is wind. The 1.25 GW Vogle 3 nuclear plant has been fueled, and both Vogle 3 and 4 should begin operation in 2023, although no additional nuclear power is expected in the US until the late 2020’s. Eventually new natural gas power will fill an essential peaking role and will include CCUS (Carbon Capture Utilization and Storage) which will add CAPEX and OPEX costs and only increase the competitiveness of SWB. There is already some 74 GW of offshore wind leases in the queue and 10 GW should be in operation by 2026. By the time we see a renaissance in nuclear fission power at scale, the electric grid will be much different. Nuclear fission power developers are anticipating this and designing new operating characteristics that can complement a grid with more renewable power and support a new green hydrogen economy. The capital and operating costs of all these new sources of energy are creating an intense competition with many options for the energy transition to achieve a sustainable future. Nuclear fusion is not essential to achieve a new sustainable energy and electric power system. Until we have working nuclear fusion prototypes, we will not know how it will fit into our energy future.
Humans have always imagined huge power from a small box, like Star Treks di-lithium crystals. Nuclear fission is much more compact than fossil fuels, and nuclear fusion is much more energy dense than fission. A 10-gram fuel pellet in a light water reactor has the energy of 250 gallons of oil. A breeder reactor could stretch that to over 4,000 gallons of oil. Fusion power density exceeds fission by a factor of 4. A compact energy source powers the Start Trek Enterprise spaceship. The compact nature of nuclear fission and fusion power does have unique advantages compared to harvesting the relatively dilute power from our main reactor 93 million miles away.