The US Federal Government today announced several modest but public steps to encourage the development of fusion energy technology. US Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm said the Biden Administration has set aside $50 million to help build a fusion energy facility in the US., and Rep. Chuck Fleischmann stated that the Omnibus Spending Bill that President Joe Biden signed into law on Tuesday includes $713 million for fusion science.
Granholm said that encouraging the development of fusion energy has been adopted as a goal across the offices within the US Department of Energy (DoE), and she introduced Scot Hsu, a physicist and a program director at Arpa, as the person who will coordinate the agency’s fusion efforts.
The announcements were made at the Fusion Energy Summit, an event hosted by the White House.
The world is on fire, Granholm reminded, and then quoted President Biden: “We must act; and we must act now.”
The fusion research facility announced today has yet to be defined. Referring to the $50 million outlay, Granholm said, “it’s not enough, but we’re putting money where our mouth is.”
Meanwhile, there’s barely mention of fusion in a draft of the Omnibus bill, though there could be language somewhere in its 2,741-pages about energy programs that is meant to include fusion efforts.
Commercial fusion energy is an enchanting goal because it appears to tick all the boxes for an ideal energy source. The fuel would be plentiful and cheap, there would be no hazardous waste products, and it would be safe. Also, a fusion plant should be able to operate all day, every day, which would be an advantage over solar and wind power.
In the past year there’s been a steady stream of significant advances in fusion energy, with various companies and labs reporting new records in sustaining reactions or in the amount of power output, or achieving milestones in reactor design. Private investment has skyrocketed.
Achieving commercial fusion remains a truly daunting technological challenge, however, the participants in the event agreed. Steve Cowley, director of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL), said something in public that is rarely mentioned when the industry talks about fusion: that no one has yet created a reaction that outputs more power than was put in.
There are other problems, too. Too much has been promised about fusion for too long, creating profound skepticism about the technology; there’s a risk that the billions dollars of private funding that poured into fusion research in just the last year might set off another self-defeating hype cycle; and there’s an expectation that communities who aren’t presented an opportunity to learn about fusion, or who aren’t adequately consulted about siting fusion facilities, might vigorously oppose the technology.
Layer on top of those concerns the typical risk associated with any new technology with wide-ranging impact: that those who could actively develop it but decline to could end up losing out technologically, economically, and politically.
So the Biden Administration gathered for the Fusion Energy Summit a guest list that included just about every possible stakeholder imaginable, including multiple administrators at the DoE, executives including the CEOs of fusion energy companies Helion and Commonwealth Fusion, physicists and academicians from several national laboratories and institutions such as MIT and Princeton, some venture capitalists, and various experts concerned with community affairs, public policy, and education.
The guests put up a mostly unified front. One speaker after another invoked the Manhattan Project (the WWII-era project to build the first atomic bomb), implying that developing commercial fusion power is a vast project, it requires a vast amount of funding (public and private), it requires a strategy, it requires both commitment and (since this is an open process rather than a secret one) public buy-in, and that the potential benefits could be extensive.
The widest point of divergence among speakers was on likely delivery dates. Granholm reminded attendees of the Biden Administration’s goal to achieve zero carbon emissions by 2035, but she wasn’t expecting fusion to be a viable solution until 2050. “We hope it will be part of our silver buckshot.” The implication of the quip being: there will be no silver bullet that will solve all our problems; we’re going to need multiple solutions wrapped in one casing.
Andrew Holland, the CEO of the Fusion Industry Association, said the majority of the FIA’s members expect to achieve commercial fusion in the 2030s, however. The venture capitalists in attendance made it clear that that’s when they’re expecting their return on investment to start rolling in.
The difference between “sometime in the 2030s” and 2050 could naturally lead to yet more hype-cycle disappointment for fusion.
Rep. Don Beyer also spoke at the event, and was the winner of the day’s unofficial quipmaster award.
Fusion can use deuterium for fuel, and deuterium can be extracted from seawater. Alluding to that, Beyer said, “We’ll always worry about peak coal and peak oil and peak natural gas. Nobody ever worries about peak seawater.”
Referring to the money the DoE has earmarked for a fusion facility, he said, “Thank you for the $50 million. I’m sure there are people who will take that here today.”
Referring to the historically constrained amount of funding dedicated to fusion research, Beyer said “Cynics have suggested that over the decades we’ve spent just enough on fusion that it never happens. We want this Administration to be able to change that.”