Progress during a pandemic: Fusion’s future emerges

By Christofer Mowry, Chief Executive Officer at General Fusion. As we turned the page on the last chapter of 2020 and placed its story on history’s shelf, I believe we all took a deep sigh of relief. Upon reflection, we should do much more than that. It certainly was a year filled with challenges, frustrations, and sadness. Yet, for all of us working to give the world fusion energy, we ended the year with much for which to be thankful and hopeful.

We’ve seen impressive improvements in the performance of several national fusion research machines. Notably, in February, China’s Academy of Sciences announced that its EAST reactor was able to heat hydrogen plasma to 50 million degrees and contain this plasma with its superconducting magnets for 102 seconds. This duration shattered the previous record for tokamak-type fusion machines.  Not to be outdone, in November, Korea’s KSTAR tokamak achieved and maintained full fusion conditions, confining a 100 million degrees plasma for 20 seconds, delivering a performance which more than doubled the prior world record for full-temperature fusion plasma. These are impressive achievements for the world’s fleet of large fusion research machines, reflecting the ever-increasing ability to control high temperature magnetized plasma and more in-depth knowledge of fusion physics. These achievements also validate the predicate for General Fusion – that the science of fusion is sufficiently mature to merit the pivot toward development of fusion power plants that can drive the energy transition to a low carbon future. They affirm the promise of fusion’s emergence as a transformational clean energy technology.

Progress in commercializing fusion energy was certainly not limited to technical performance this past year. Policymakers and governments began to foster the shift from research and development to demonstration and deployment with definitive programmatic recommendations, legislation, and funding. In the United States, Congress passed new legislation directing the Department of Energy (DOE) to conceive and launch a public-private partnership for innovative and diverse fusion technology demonstration. In the United Kingdom, the government issued The Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution and has backed up their aspirational vision with a commitment to invest more than £400 million in new fusion research and development. On the regulatory front, Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom all took further steps toward creating frameworks for licensing fusion power plants. That these efforts include elements of international collaboration and coordination are especially encouraging, given the significant benefits of global regulatory harmonization. 2021 looks to bring more clarity in how government and industry will collaborate in delivering fusion more rapidly and more efficiently to the future of energy.

We also got things done here at General Fusion. Despite the pandemic, General Fusion transitioned into full-scale engineering development of our Fusion Demonstration Plant. It is now poised to enter the deployment phase, with our global site selection competition nearing the finish line.  Our latest plasma injector, the world’s largest and most powerful, reached full power, and we commissioned a new engineering testbed for our plasma compression system. Computational modeling and simulation, so important for predicting and refining our Fusion Demonstration Plant’s performance, became more sophisticated with the integration of multiple physics into a single code. 2020 was a good year for external stakeholder engagement as well, with new investors, partners, and government support, particularly from the Canadian NSERC and United States DOE INFUSE programs. All of this progress stimulated General Fusion’s continued growth, with our company almost doubling in size over the past year. And we accomplished this while keeping our employees safe.

The contours of all these impressive accomplishments during a very difficult year have, in retrospect, formed the outlines for new progress to come in 2021. Looking back, we thus see reflected the hopes and dreams for the future.