By Michael Delage – Chief Technology Officer
Fusion energy, long the domain of national laboratories and university physics departments, has seen a surge of interest from the private sector over the past decade. The market opportunity opened by the transformation of the energy industry, combined with the emergence of new technologies, has created a space for scientists outside of academia to advance the state of fusion and focus their research on approaches with practical, commercially viable outcomes.
This is partly driven by growing awareness of the need to decarbonize our energy supply, culminating with the COP21 Paris climate agreement in 2015. Energy markets have adapted to this new reality, stimulating investment in emission-free technologies such as wind and solar. These programs have been so successful that in some areas they are now hitting constraints imposed by the technology mix on the grid – the need to balance intermittent renewables with energy demand and peak loads. In this environment, a portfolio of clean, available on-demand energy sources is required to meet growing demand for electricity while continuing to decarbonize energy generation. As we talked about in General Fusion’s last blog post, this is a problem that has yet to be solved.
It also creates the opportunity that has driven investment in fusion energy, and it doesn’t come without its risks. Risk is multidimensional; in the case of fusion it combines science risk (particularly in the largely unexplored field of plasma physics), technology risk, and time/investment risk. The trade-off for private fusion energy ventures is to accept increased science and/or technology risk for reduced cost and time-to-market.
It’s not the first time that investors have turned to applied science – these scientist entrepreneurs are building on a long history of private capital driving innovation, from Thomas Edison to the Wright brothers, to Elon Musk and SpaceX. Indeed, the Scientist Entrepreneur is a model which has underpinned many advances in the pharmaceutical industry.
While the individual approaches to generating energy from fusion are many and varied, private companies in this space all operate according to a few common themes. First and foremost is commercial practicality, without which there would be no payback for investors. The economics of this generally dictate the second theme: smaller power plants, which have the additional benefit of enabling faster design iterations and experimental campaigns (theme three). This agility enables new technologies developed in other fields (theme four) to be incorporated into designs, reaping the benefits of improvements in digital servo controls, high temperature superconductors, machine learning and AI, and simulation and high performance computing, to name a few.
A further theme of private ventures is the prevalence of collaborations with universities and national labs. The ability to leverage continuing research is key to the viability of these businesses, which would otherwise be unable to engage in the lengthy fundamental research campaigns required to unlock entirely new areas of knowledge. General Fusion, for example, works closely with McGill University on our compression technology, and with Princeton University researchers on plasma physics.
These collaborations also point to a final theme, one which embodies the inherent risk these ventures accept to pursue the (potentially substantial) payoff of realizing commercial fusion energy. The majority of private ventures are exploring less-researched approaches to fusion, choosing to take the road less travelled in the belief that it may be a shorter path to a viable power plant.
Along the way these companies contribute to fusion research by filling in the white space between established approaches. All of the private fusion companies are active in the fusion science community; publishing results in scientific journals, attending and even hosting scientific conferences and workshops. Advances in plasma facing surfaces, diagnostics and plasma configurations have been some of the outcomes of private investment in the field, and these feedback into ongoing efforts (both public and private).
The challenge of meeting growing energy demand while simultaneously decarbonizing our energy supply is one of the greatest challenges humankind has faced, and the deadline is as pressing as its implications. The scientist entrepreneur finds themselves well-placed to confront this challenge, drawing on the strengths of both the public and private sectors to drive timely innovation in the face of adversity.