Fusion is considered by many as the holy grail for supplying all of our clean electricity needs. However, the old joke is that nuclear fusion is always 30 years away, no matter what advances or promises are made. But maybe not this time; , there are several privately funded startups that are thinking outside the box and accelerating fusion development with the ultimate goal of commercializing it much sooner than you might think possible. There’s a lot of interesting developments and news around these companies to sift through. What makes each of these companies’ fusion promises unique compared to what’s come before? And will they finally break that 30 year curse?
I know many of you are probably typing “it’s never going to happen” into the comments, but here me out. There are three startups I’m going to focus on in this video that have some unique technologies and approaches to try and deliver commercial fusion generated electricity in the near future. There’s actually a fourth I’d include this group, Commonwealth Fusion Systems, but I already made a video about them a little while ago. I’ll include a link in the description, so you can check that one out as well. They are another very promising company that may make you think differently about the future of fusion. For these three, they’re moving away from the traditional tokamak reactor, donut shaped design you’re probably familiar with. But first, why fusion and why are things feeling different now?
Unlike solar and wind, nuclear power is 24/7. Yet, not all nuclear power is created equal.1 Fission is the state-of-the-art process, where neutrons hit and split radioactive atoms such as Uranium-235, which releases energy and more neutrons. This generates lots of heat, which can be used to generate steam and turn turbines. It also triggers an unstable chain-reaction that could get out of control and lead to reactor explosion or meltdown. If you think this will never happen, just look at Fukushima.2 And even when everything goes alright, you’re still left with a lot of radioactive waste to dispose of. Instead, as the name hints, the fusion process consists of merging atoms rather than splitting them. To be more specific, you can use deuterium and tritium, which are hydrogen isotopes. Besides being much more stable than fission fuel, these elements are more widely available, as they can be mostly sourced from seawater. They also eliminate the problems of CO2 emissions found in fossil fuel power generation and generate no nuclear waste, as found in fission reactors. So, you may probably see why fusion is considered much safer and greener than fission. On top of that, it can yield 4x more energy than the conventional reaction.3
But how come we aren’t using it to produce clean energy at a commercial scale yet? In short, the energy you spend to sustain the reaction is much higher than what you get out of it. In other words, we don’t achieve the so-called net energy gain. This is because you need to maintain super high temperatures to keep the reaction going. Just to give you a…scalding sensation…we’re talking about getting 10x hotter than the sun’s core.4 When reaching those crazy temperatures, deuterium and tritium lose electrons and turn into positively charged ions, which form the plasma. Under such conditions, ionized particles defy their repulsion force and smash into helium atoms. Although bottling something hotter than the sun in a machine sounds impossible, we’ve been playing around with plasma-containing rigs since the 1950s.5 You’d imagine that would be enough time to find a solution, right? Well, just like any other invention made in the lab, you need a lot of funds to improve it and make it commercially viable before it could be used in the real world. This leads us to one of the reasons things feel different now: funding.
It wasn’t until the 1970s that the US government invested big time into tokamak fusion reactors, which were the most promising design at the time.6 Ironically, that push only happened because of the fossil fuel crisis. However, when fossil fuels prices dropped again in the mid 1980s, national fusion funding also dropped. After a period of stagnation, the US government reignited the fusion spark by pouring a pile of cash in an international project called ITER. Meaning “The Way” in Latin7, ITER has engaged 35 countries in the construction of the world’s largest tokamak reactor in Southern France.
Is this the “way” to accelerate fusion deployment? Over the years, ITER rig’s massive size has meant overspending and delays. For instance, last January, France’s Nuclear Safety Authority (ASN) halted the machine assembly to address some safety concerns.8 While the creation of their first plasma was scheduled for 2025, the European Commission thinks that this undesired pit-stop will postpone it by at least 17 months.9 When it comes to construction costs, we’re not doing any better. As of 2018, the US Department of Energy (DOE) predicted American spending to be 3x greater than expected.10 To add to all this, ITER’s full operation won’t start until 2035 and it’s not even going to be a working reactor, but only a testing facility.
I can hear you already. Is that money for nothing? Well, not according to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.11 Their 2019 report recommended the government to follow ITER as it’s the best way to dodge fusion’s dire straits. They also encouraged the development of in-house, yet more compact, fusion pilot plants, which makes financial sense considering that America’s current budget for fusion is less than one fifth of what we spend on renewables.12
Luckily, fusion doesn’t only rely on public moolah. Driven by a tenfold increase in private investments, fusion startups have popped up like nuclear mushrooms over the last 30 years.13 As reported by the Fusion Industry Association this year,14 their funding increased by 139% compared to 2021, topping $4.8 billion overall. Remember that the US government is allocating only $500 million to fusion projects per year. Fuelled by deep-pocketed entrepreneurs, startups could get us to fusion much sooner than ITER.
For example, in the previous video I mentioned,15 I talked about a company called Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS), which is an MIT spin-off. In 2015, researchers designed a more compact tokamak reactor. Their trick was to use a new superconducting magnet to confine the plasma in a much smaller space. Just to give you a sense of scale, their Sparc rig takes up only 2% the size of ITER. Also, last year they created a magnetic field of 20 Tesla, which is nearly twice as powerful as the one ITER will generate.16 As touted by the partnership, their machine will start producing a net energy gain in 2025.
A fusion of promising technologies
That massive influx of private cash is what’s giving these companies an edge over the lower government funded efforts. Unlike the collaboration between CFS and MIT, focusing on a reduced version of the conventional tokamak reactor, the three other companies I want to focus on today are implementing unique designs for pulsed reactions. I had the chance to interview all of them and take the pulse of their technologies.
Let’s begin our startups tour in Seattle, where Helion17 is rethinking the way of generating electricity from fusion. Typically, you convert the reaction heat into steam to drive a turbine. Instead, Helion came up with a more straightforward route called direct energy conversion. As David Kirtley, Helion’s CEO, pointed out, this implies a significant advantage.
“The direct energy recovery speeds you up by generations of machines because you’re just directly harnessing the electricity from the beginning, rather than having to learn how to build the big steam turbine systems or other things that other people are doing.” -David Kirtley
How does their system work? In terms of plasma confinement, their approach is similar to that used by tokamak reactors, which implies the generation of a magnetic field. But there are some key differences in their design. To begin with, their reactor looks more like a dumbbell rather than a donut…a healthier shape so to speak…
So, what happens inside their vessel? In their design, they inject a gaseous mixture of deuterium and helium-3 at each end of their reactor and superheat it through electromagnetic radiation to create plasma.18 When passing a current through the coils, the magnets inverts the plasma magnetic field, which wraps around it.19 This confinement technique is called field reversed configuration (FRC). Their system, dubbed as plasma accelerator, directs the two plasma sources from each end towards the center of the rig. Traveling at 1 million mph, they slam into a merged plasma which gets compressed by other magnets to make fusion happen. Finally, the resulting pressure pushes back onto the magnets. They repeat these oscillations in pulses. The post-fusion plasma expansion induces a magnetic field variation and therefore an electric current, which is captured by the Helion system.
“In our previous systems we’ve been able to show that we could put energy into a magnetic field and recover it very, very efficiently, over 95% efficiency. And that enables us to build fusion systems a lot faster and smaller.” -David Kirtley
Thanks to this efficient energy recovery, Helion doesn’t need to achieve fusion ignition, which is the point where the reaction becomes self-sustained.20 And this is a huge bonus. Just think that scientists accomplished fusion ignition for the first time only last year, but they still haven’t figured out how to replicate it.21
“The national ignition facility is getting to ignition for the first time, but what happens after ignition is still a big fusion physics unknown. I don’t want to have to get to even as far as the national ignition facility is trying to do, I want to focus on modern electronics, which are very efficient, high speed electronics, which are very fast, focusing on taking those technologies from all industries, applying them to fusion so that I can build systems that don’t require the hard physics of ignition, don’t require a lot of those things that the fusion physics community is still trying to understand and model correctly.” -David Kirtley
That sounds promising, right? But how soon are we going to see their reactor up and running? Helion is currently developing Polaris, their seventh generation prototype. However, right from the onset, the startup has been playing around with multiple machines at the same time. According to David, this is actually what’s propelling Helion forward.
“Building multiple systems in parallel accelerates your timeline in a very unusual way historically for fusion.” -David Kirtley
“That’s an approach that we focused on when we spun off Helion. Our sixth generation system trend is still operational. We run it multiple days a week. In the evenings we’re doing fusion still, learning as much as we can from that system while we’re building the seventh generation. And the early computer simulations of the eighth generation are being done right now. We need to be doing a lot of those development efforts in parallel so that we can be moving as fast as possible, still informing the next generation, but not waiting on the typical historical design build reporting cycle and then start again. We found that that really stretches out timelines.” -David Kirtley
Apparently, by the end of 2024 Polaris is meant to have its light-bulb moment … meaning it will generate enough electricity to power a light bulb. In fact, while many fusion experts always bring up the net energy gain conundrum, Helion is putting a spotlight on electricity production. In fact, all of these startups are.
“Other people have shown positive energy in a format that’s hard to capture or hard to use. Our goal is to focus all the way on electricity and do it from the beginning, so that what we’re making, the physics we’re proving, gets to electricity.” -David Kirtley
The focus on positive electricity production makes sense. We need zero-carbon electricity as soon as possible if we want to hit net zero targets by 2050. So, at the end of the day, firing up a fusion reaction without producing any electricity does pretty much nothing towards meeting that goal.
Our next stop is Canada, where General Fusion22 is working hard to bring fusion-produced electricity to the market by 2030. Just like Helion’s, their system magnetically insulates the plasma. That is where the similarities end though, as General Fusion’s rig has a totally different design. An array of steam-driven pistons surrounds and compresses a rotating chamber filled with a liquid mix of lithium and lead.23 When spinning, the metal-based solution forms a cavity, wherein deuterium and tritium atoms are dropped.24 As fusion takes place within the metallic slurry, their machine walls are shielded against extreme temperature and pressure, which prolongs their lifetime. I had a chance to speak to Mike Donaldson, General Fusion’s Vice President, who shared a great analogy to picture their reactor.
“It’s much like a diesel engine, but quite a bit bigger and requires a little bit more science.” -Mike Donaldson
Thinking of it like a diesel engine really helped it click with me because of the way it compresses and pulses to create energy. From the electricity generation standpoint, General Fusion’s mode of operation is closer to the standard practice. When fusion occurs, the molten metal absorbs the released energy, which is sent to a heat exchanger to generate steam. Vapor will then drive a turbine to produce clean electricity.
Simplicity is possibly the biggest benefit of General Fusion’s design and Mike summarized it in a nice way.
“You can take that liquid metal, put it through a heat exchanger, boil steam, and then all sorts of traditional technologies use steam to turn a turbine. So that part is known. So it’s really a practical approach that removes those traditional barriers that other Fusion approaches still haven’t overcome yet.” -Mike Donaldson
Over the last 20 years, General Fusion has been designing the components of their system independently. Liquid metal, plasma injector, steam pistons. Now, they’re fusing all those pieces together into a demonstration plant in the UK, which is scheduled to go live in 2027. So, what’s behind this bullish timeline? According to Mike, faster computer simulations and machine learning have been speeding up their progress.
“We use computational fluid dynamics modeling to develop how to form that liquid metal cavity and what’s going to happen to that cavity when it compresses.” -Mike Donaldson
“I’m not sure if it is gigabytes of data for every time we create a plasma, but it’s right up there. And so, one of the ways that we can leverage machine learning is by throwing it at that data set to really understand what we’ve got.” -Mike Donaldson
Aside from smarter and faster data handling, General Fusion is leveraging top-class fusion expertise to speed up the construction of their demonstration plant. The startup partnered with Culham Centre for Fusion Energy, which crafted the Joint European Torus (JET), one of the world’s biggest tokamak reactors.25
Speaking of the UK, that’s where the third startup catalyzing fusion is operating. Unlike Helion and General Fusion, which are betting on magnetic coils or steam-driven pistons to confine and heat their plasma, First Light26 is harnessing a different weapon…literally…their novel pulsed ignition is called projectile fusion and shoots off an old concept, that is inertial-confinement fusion (ICF).27 Put simply, after triggering a sort of railgun, a copper disk-shaped projectile will fly at 6.5 km/s, or approximately 4 mi/s28 towards a small plastic cube, a.k.a target, encapsulating the fuel. The impact gives rise to a pressure wave that collapses the fuel. This then turns into plasma, thus sparking fusion. Another major difference compared to Helion and General Fusion is that First Light doesn’t generate any magnetic fields to trap their plasma. And that’s because their reaction is so quick that the plasma doesn’t have time to bounce back. When it comes to converting the fusion energy into electricity, the British startup adopts a very similar technique to that designed by General Fusion. In this case, a lithium-based coolant will flow inside the fusion chamber and capture the heat. The liquid also serves as a machine protection against fusion-induced damage. Finally, passing the coolant through a heat exchanger, you’ll get the steam to run the turbine. After bullet-proofing their projectile fusion last April, they’re now aiming their guns at demonstrating net energy gain by 2024.29 If everything is on target, they may have a power plant up and shooting in 2030.
30 years or much sooner?
These three startups don’t seem to be joking about getting fusion out in the world in years, not decades. So, can they really debunk the “30-years away” myth once and for all? The truth is that it’s a hard call to make. While smaller systems require less massive infrastructure than ITER, fusion systems are very complex and therefore building them implies significant technical challenges. Scaling down doesn’t necessarily mean making the system simpler. For instance, Helion’s current reactor only generates pulses only every 10 minutes. However, their devices will have to run much quicker to power the grid in a consistent way.
“A commercial system will want to get from once every 600 seconds to at least once a second. That’s a big engineering jump.” -David Kirtley
Having said that, the Seattle-based startup is already putting together an in-house value chain. This holistic approach to their design, manufacturing, scale up, and electricity production was something all of the companies hit on in my conversations. It’s one of the key reasons why these approaches are good candidates for making the fusion dream come true sooner than anybody else, like ITER.
“A lot of what we’re doing in our facility is building out those manufacturing lines of electronics and semiconductors. We just opened up a large scale machine shop with our big 15 foot long CNCs to start machining all the big parts that we need for the big high powered magnets.” -David Kirtley
For General Fusion, it’s not about spinning up unique manufacturing and supply chains, but making the most out of off-the-shelf machinery like heat exchangers, turbines, etc. They’re leaning into already existing supply chains.
“So from the commercialization standpoint, we want to make sure that we’re not using any exotic materials. While we do need to partner with suppliers that can build big industrial equipment, there’s lots of people out there that can build big industrial equipment. We are not establishing a new supply chain.” -Mike Donaldson
All these startups have a plan to address their weaknesses, some fusion experts working in the public sector are still skeptical about their ambitious claim of delivering a large-scale working fusion reactor within a decade.30 Critics argue it’s just a clever move to attract more investors. I don’t know how biased state-funded researchers are, but none of the fusion startups I talked to were salesy at all. They were very pragmatic.
“We’re not predicting yet how long that’s going to take to get commercial electricity on the grid, we’re being very thoughtful about those and over promising those.” -David Kirtley
“It’s definitely an aggressive schedule for sure, but we have to keep our eye on the ball. The most important part is to get this fusion demonstration plant demonstrating that we can reach fusion conditions at scale. After that, there will be some challenges.” -Mike Donaldson
Being zero-carbon, on-demand and safe, it’s clear why so many people are passionate about fusion power as the best way to build a climate-friendly energy grid. While I can’t vet these companies for viability, I can appreciate their expertise and motivation to make fusion a reality in the short term. The massive influx of funding has allowed them to attract the top talent and invest in development at a much faster pace than government funded operations. After speaking to people from Commonwealth Fusion Systems, Helion, General Fusion, and First Light Fusion, there’s one clear thread about all of them: they’re all passionate and believe we can solve this complex engineering and physics puzzle. Clearly, they’ll have to deal with technical, logistical and regulatory obstacles, but their technologies may bring us fusion much earlier than we thought is possible.
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