The US Department of Energy’s fusion coordinator says investment in fusion power is about to go mainstream.
“As the technology continues to mature, there will be a point where private investors feel they need to invest in convergence, and I feel we’re starting to reach that tipping point,” Scott Hsu said in a webinar on Thursday. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.
Hsu advises DOE leadership on fusion energy issues, and he coordinates the efforts of all Energy Department offices to promote fusion energy research, development and demonstration in partnership with the private sector.
“If in the past it was seen as a very high-risk type of activity, then at some point it will be later that everyone will invest in it. And so the question is where are we now, and I think we’re on an overall upward trend, given the macro picture.”
Governments have supported fusion research for decades, but in 2021 private investment has outstripped public funding. That year, private investors poured $4.44 billion into a pursuit that raised just $1.5 billion. billion over the previous five years, according to a recent estimate by McKinsey & Co.
The most significant development that year, Hsu said, was that both the 3- and 5-year moving averages of private investment exceeded the level of public investment.
“Now, some of that, I think, is driven by certain companies hitting very specific milestones, but I would say there’s also a macro trend.”
That 2021 growth could be a harbinger of investment if mainstream investors decide to jump on the bandwagon. They will likely be encouraged by the December breakthrough at DOE’s National Ignition Facility, where for the first time a fusion reaction released more energy (3.15 megajoules) than the laser that ignited it (2.05 megajoules).
All this private investment doesn’t mean, Hsu said, that public investment is no longer needed.
“I want to be clear. “There are still significant scientific and technical challenges,” he said. “Strong publicly funded programs are still badly needed.”
Governments still need to support research into improved power sources for fusion reactors, he said, for materials or processes that can withstand the extreme conditions of fusion plasmas and a self-sustaining fuel cycle to produce tritium for reactors.
The most studied fusion reaction fuses two isotopes of hydrogen, deuterium and tritium, in a hot plasma, where they turn into helium, releasing an extra neutron and a burst of energy. “In a nuclear fusion reactor, the hot, charged gas known as plasma reaches an out-of-this-world temperature of 150 million degrees Celsius, or 10 times hotter than the center of the sun,” according to Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Fusion promises to produce vast amounts of energy from the most abundant element in the universe, without the carbon emissions from the fusion reaction itself.
The recent surge in investment has come from investors around the world, but about 80 percent of that has come from U.S. companies, according to Hsu.
Most of those companies are in the venture capital development stages, so mainstream investors can wait for them to break even unless they want to settle for investing in bigger companies that have already filed suit, including the usual suspects like this. like Chevron, Amazon and Alphabet. In a contribution to Forbes, Q.Ai suggests several companies that have merger prospects. Josh Enomoto offers a similar approach via Yahoo.
In its report, McKinsey notes that 25 companies are pursuing fusion power, compared to just one earlier this century. It analyzes investments in the following leading companies: TAE Technologies, General Fusion, Commonwealth Fusion Systems, Helion Energy, Zap Energy, Tokamak Energy and First Light Fusion.