U.S. Set to Lead Global Research for Nuclear Fusion

U.S. climate envoy John Kerry said the U.S. is ready to work with other governments on research and development of nuclear fusion, as part of efforts to produce more carbon-free energy and combat climate change.

Kerry made the announcement Dec. 5 at the COP28 climate conference in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Fusion has long been considered a “holy grail” of energy, able to produce what scientists consider a near-limitless supply of electricity without carbon emissions. Fusion is the process of two or more atomic nuclei being fused together to form a single, heavier nucleus that releases energy, which then can be used to generate electricity. As an example of its energy, fusion is what powers the sun and the stars.

“We are edging ever-closer to a fusion-powered reality. And at the same time, yes, significant scientific and engineering challenges exist,” said Kerry. “Careful thought and thoughtful policy is going to be critical to navigate this.”

It was one year ago, on Dec. 5, 2022, that scientists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California made a breakthrough in nuclear fusion technology. They achieved what’s known as “ignition,” in which more energy is produced from a fusion reaction that was needed to make the reaction occur. The experiment, using lasers, took place at the National Ignition Facility in Livermore, home to the world’s largest laser fusion facility.

Kerry, among those representing the U.S. government at the Dubai event sponsored by the United Nations, already has called for countries worldwide to end construction of new coal-fired power plants in an effort to limit global warming. On Tuesday, speaking at the Atlantic Council Global Energy Forum as part of COP28, Kerry said governments must work together to “harness the power of fundamental physics and human ingenuity in response to a crisis.”

The new fusion program comes after the Biden administration in March 2022 announced a strategy to support U.S.-based fusion research. “The United States was proud to announce its bold decadal vision for commercial fusion energy last year … but, it is clear we cannot realize this grand ambition—perhaps not at all but certainly not at the pace we need to—doing it alone,” Kerry said.

Areas of Cooperation

Kerry said the plan to support nuclear fusion includes at least five areas where international partnerships could be forged: research, supply chain and future marketplace, regulation, workforce issues, and public engagement.

Tuesday’s announcement comes after the U.S. and UK last month announced a partnership to accelerate global fusion energy development. The U.S. and nearly three dozen other groups also continue to collaborate on the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, or ITER, project in France, an oft-delayed endeavor to prove the viability of fusion.

Japan and the European Union (EU), meanwhile, on Dec. 1 said the groups have begun operating the what is considered the world’s biggest and most advanced tokamak-type fusion reactor. The JT-60SA, located in Ibaraki Prefecture, Japan, is among three fusion-related projects being developed by Japan and the EU. A tokamak is a donut-shaped machine that uses powerful magnets to confine and insulate a plasma, a process that makes the plasma hot enough to produce and sustain a fusion reaction.

Michl Binderbauer, CEO of California-based TAE Technologies, a fusion science and engineering group, in an email Tuesday to POWER said, “Today, TAE Technologies is celebrating the White House and the Special Presidential Envoy for Climate’s support for fusion energy as a new clean energy source of the near future. As the first private fusion company, TAE represents a significant portion of the industry’s investment and is proud to be a leader in fusion’s promise of inexhaustible carbon-free energy.

“Thanks to our company’s unique approach using the safest and most sustainable fuel, hydrogen-boron, on the order of just 1% of today’s current boron production could power enough fusion energy to meet the world’s electricity needs. Deployed at scale, this would allow everyone access to affordable, reliable power without damaging the environment or contributing to geopolitical conflict,” said Binderbauer.

Binderbauer noted his company also is working with Japan on research and development for fusion. “We’ve intentionally pursued international partnership in our development of this approach, including our work with Japan’s National Institute for Fusion Science, with whom we reached a scientific breakthrough on hydrogen-boron in magnetic confinement earlier this year,” said Binderbauer. “Building upon the recent success of landmark bills passed in both North Carolina and TAE’s home state of California to enshrine fusion power into the states’ regulatory framework, this announcement signals continued momentum and global collaboration for onboarding fusion as a viable and necessary part of our global energy mix.”

Fission-Based Reactors

Most of today’s nuclear power comes from nuclear fission reactors. Atoms are split in those reactors, which produces energy but also radioactive waste. The global nuclear power industry on Dec. 3 launched an initiative at COP28 in which more than 20 nations pledged to triple fission-based nuclear energy by 2050.

Fusion does not produce radioactive waste, which along with its energy potential has driven research into the technology. The Fusion Industry Association (FIA) has said more than $6 billion has been invested in fusion research, with more than 40 companies worldwide working on fusion—most of those in the U.S. The group said about a third of those companies were launched over the past two years.

The FIA in July of this year said it had identified 19 companies that have said they could deliver fusion-produced energy to the power grid by 2035.

Darrell Proctor is a senior associate editor for POWER (@POWERmagazine).

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