Since scientists first demonstrated nuclear power 70 years ago, the second stage of nuclear power has remained just beyond our fingertips: nuclear fusion power. While promising, the ETA on the technology required to develop and build viable nuclear fusion has remained decades away.
Until now. Probably.
A company claims to have hit a critical milestone in the development of a new technology capable of generating power from nuclear fusion, according to a recent press release.
Called TAE Technologies, the fusion energy developer claimed its reactors might generate energy at commercial scales by the end of the 2020s — using a novel ability to produce stable plasma at temperatures topping 50 million degrees Celsius. For comparison, this is more than twice the temperature of the core of the sun!
A company achieved sufficient temperatures for nuclear fusion
The concept of fusion energy promises near-limitless energy with sparse emissions and negligible carbon footprint — and has remained just beyond today's technology, 10 years ahead for the nearly 70 years since scientists first cracked the power of the atom and nuclear energy. But several companies — including TAE, Commonwealth Fusion Systems, General Fusion, and many other entities around the world are closing in on bringing the erstwhile sci-fi technology into the infrastructural backbone of real-world commerce.
TAE is especially pleased with its achievement because it's a proof-of-concept for a lifetime of work from Norman Rostoker, a co-founder of the firm who dedicated his life to advancing fusion energy research — yet sadly didn't live to see this crucial benchmark he helped make possible.
"This is an incredibly rewarding milestone and an apt tribute to the vision of my late mentor, Norman Rostoker. Norman and I wrote a paper in the 1990s theorizing that a certain plasma dominated by highly energetic particles should become increasingly better confined and stable as temperatures increase," said CEO TAE Michl Binderbauer, in the press release. "We have now been able to demonstrate this plasma behavior with overwhelming evidence."
"It is a powerful validation of our work over the last three decades, and a very critical milestone for TAE that proves the laws of physics are on our side," added Binderbauer.
This comes six years after TAE proved its reactor design could sustain plasma indefinitely — which means a fusion reaction can continue indefinitely, once it's started. The new milestone marks the achievement of temperatures required to adapt the reactors for commercial use. This benchmark enabled TAE to raise an extra $280 million in financing — which brings its total to $880 million, one of the most highly financed private nuclear fusion endeavors on Earth.
Multiple companies and projects are pushing for nuclear fusion
The latest machine is called Norman, and after its initial activation in the summer of 2017, the company employed machine learning AI from companies like Google, in addition to borrowing computing power from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to prove Rostoker's equations about nuclear fusion worked in real-world scenarios.
"As we shift out the scientific validation phase into engineering commercial-scale solutions for both our fusion and power management technologies, TAE will become a significant contributor in modernizing the entire energy grid."
However, as of writing the firm has yet to generate energy. Right now, the "energy is super tiny. It's immaterial. It's a needle in a haystack," said Binderbauer in a Tech Crunch report. "In terms of its energy discernability, we can use it for diagnostics." But having proven the science, the next step for TAE is to develop the technology needed to create sufficient conditions for fusion reactor energy generation.
Another nuclear fusion project — called ITER — is a gigantic, $25 billion-plus reactor under construction in France. The company aims to achieve its first sustained plasma burn no earlier than 2035. Once this is accomplished, the project expects another decade to pass before a completed electricity-generating pilot plant may be unveiled to the world. Considering the pattern of nuclear power's persistent delay from the near future to the slightly less near future, and so on, in the context of sorely needed sustainable energy alternatives, for many, this just isn't soon enough.
Nuclear fusion is real, but it faces serious challenges
However, some executive-level officers of nuclear fusion companies, like CTO Michael Delage of General Fusion (Vancouver, Canada), thinks the promises about nuclear fusion have more substance in the 2020s. "I honestly believe that it is different this time," he said in a Physics Today report. "The underlying science and the ability to do modeling and simulation on how plasmas behave have really advanced a lot and out of the public eye." In fact, with surging investments in private nuclear fusion projects — including philanthropists, billionaires, capital firms, and even oil and gas powerhouses — the projections for viable fusion reactors in coming decades might finally be realistic.
Of course, even if nuclear fusion enters the world's energy infrastructure as a viable commercial alternative to, say, fossil fuels, there may still be downsides. "Earth-bound fusion reactors that burn neutron-rich isotopes have byproducts that are anything but harmless: Energetic neutron streams comprise 80% of the fusion energy output of deuterium-tritium reasons and 35% of deuterium-deuterium reactions," said Daniel Jessby, Princeton Plasma Physics Lab's former principal physicist, in a 2017 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists article. To Jessby, some of the same problems faced by fission-based nuclear power could carry over to fusion power.
While nuclear fusion is no longer science fiction, it still faces several challenges in the coming decades, not least of which from critics of nuclear power in general. But Addison Fischer, a longtime investor in and board director of TAE, remains optimistic: "TAE's most recent funding positions the company to undertake their penultimate step in implementing sustainable aneutronic nuclear fusion and power management solutions that will benefit the planet." Strong words, but whether or not nuclear fusion is ultimately integrated into real-world electrical grids — the nascent technology has far too much promise to discount.