Picture of Christopher A. Hopkins, CFA

Christopher A. Hopkins, CFA

Unlimited, clean energy is a step closer to reality

Nuclear fusion, as the joke goes, is the energy source of the future and always will be. In theory, the technology offers a virtually limitless supply of energy for electric generation with virtually no carbon footprint or waste products. Harnessing this immense potential and commercializing it on a large scale is quite another matter and success even in the lab has been elusive.

Last month, 60 years of research finally culminated in a breakthrough at the National Ignition Facility (NIF) of the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory that not only proved the concept but will prime the pump for the flow of private capital necessary to bring the promise to fruition. For the first time, a fusion reaction produced more energy than it consumed, an achievement known as ignition. And while large-scale deployment of fusion generation remains far in the future, the timeline just got much shorter.

About 11% of the world’s electricity today is generated by nuclear reactors in a process called fission (from Latin meaning “to split”) in which a heavy, unstable element like uranium is cleaved into two smaller atoms, initiating a chain reaction and releasing a huge amount of energy in the process. Fission reactors are essentially controlled atomic bombs like those that ended World War II but tightly contained and modulated to produce heat energy to drive steam turbines. While a fission reactor produces vast energy with no carbon emission, it leaves behind radioactive waste and, if unchecked or damaged, can run out of control as happened at Fukushima, Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. TVA operates three nuclear fission facilities that provide power to the Tennessee Valley. Sequoyah, Watts Bar and Browns Ferry nuclear plants comprise about 40% of all the power TVA produces.

Fusion is a very different type of nuclear reaction that eliminates the risks and radioactive waste of fission reactors. Rather than splitting heavy atoms, fusion smashes very light atoms like hydrogen together under extremely high temperatures and pressures, releasing enormous energy in the process. The trick is to get more energy out of the reaction than the power needed to heat and squash the atoms together. The attainment of ignition at the NIF lab crossed that threshold for the first time under very controlled laboratory conditions, releasing about 50% more energy than the laser injected, roughly enough juice to run an average refrigerator for about 5 hours.

The current fission technology also requires the expensive and hazardous mining and refining of uranium or plutonium as the primary fuel. By contrast, fusion needs just two isotopes or variant of forms of hydrogen known as deuterium and tritium, which are naturally occurring in tiny concentrations. Deuterium is a hydrogen atom in which an extra uncharged particle called a neutron has hitched a ride. Tritium is a hydrogen atom with 2 additional neutrons.

The successful experiment at NIF focused 192 high-powered lasers for a fraction of a second on a pea-sized pellet of frozen hydrogen isotopes inside a tiny gold cylinder. The burst of laser energy heats the fuel pellet to 180 million degrees Fahrenheit and compresses it at a pressure of 100 billion Earth atmospheres to fuse a deuterium and tritium isotope together to create a single helium atom. The resulting helium is lighter than the two hydrogen isotopes, with the difference in mass (one neutron) released as heat energy. Fusion is also called a thermonuclear reaction, the same process that lights up our sun. Now you know why e=mc2.

Here’s where it gets complicated and why it’s not ready for prime time. The lasers required to initiate the fusion reaction are highly inefficient, requiring about 150 times more energy to power them than they can deliver to the target. An economically viable application would require a hundred-fold improvement in laser technology and solving many other complex technical problems in ramping up to commercial scale. That will require massive capital investment.

The good news is that investors are queuing up to fund the next generation of research and development in search of a profit. While most of the basic research to date has been funded by governments, the private sector is rushing into the breach. Private investment in fusion research topped $2.6 billion by 25 independent companies in 2021, exceeding government funding for the first time. There are not yet any direct opportunities for individuals to invest, but some major energy companies including Chevron and Eni have entered the fray with seed capital. Bloomberg analysts believe that public companies playing in the sector could eventually exceed a total market value of $40 trillion. One might look to the privatization of space exploration and satellite launches for profit as an analog.

There are currently scientists from over 50 nations at several large experimental facilities conducting basic research into different fusion technologies. These researchers generally talk in terms of 4-5 decades as a runway for commercially viable fusion energy. Entrepreneurs in the sector are decidedly more optimistic, anticipating a first-generation utility application by 2050 or even sooner thanks to the swelling infusion of private investment that could deliver clean and abundant electricity within a generation. Given that global power consumption is expected to triple by 2050, these breakthroughs cannot come soon enough, but may arrive sooner than we expect. Power on.

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