Nuclear fusion investors feel they are spotting what could be the world’s biggest disruption – unmaking and rebuilding the world’s way of making electricity. 

Story: Ryan Swift

By and large, the electricity business is dirty. Generating electricity still involves burning a lot of coal. Burning natural gas is cleaner, but still causes harmful emissions. Despite years of heavy investment in renewable energy sources such as wind, solar and geothermal, these still constitute a distinct minority of total electricity generation. Add to that the almost certain increase in electricity demand and generation in the years to come, as Asia and Africa continue to industrialise and urbanise. The pressure for green sources of electricity will only increase.

Nuclear fission, the process of splitting heavy uranium atoms to create heat and therefore electricity, has fallen from favor because of the horrible risks associated with the radioactive waste that results from the fission process. Chernobyl and Fukishima are testaments to that. Yet, nuclear fission is one of the biggest sources of emissions-free electricity the world has.

To fix this dilemma, a global band of scientists and engineers have been on a quest to crack the riddle of nuclear fusion power, a potential source of clean, limitless electricity. For over 50 years, major governments and research labs have committed resources to trying to make nuclear fusion power work, in the hope that pollution-free, readily available electricity can be had, everywhere in the world. Nuclear fusion relies on isotopes of hydrogen, readily found in seawater.

Nuclear fusion power is made by fusing together two hydrogen atoms to create a heavier helium atom, which releases a tremendous amount of heat energy. The process is the same, that powers the Sun, and therein lies the problem. Creating and containing a nuclear fusion reaction is essentially trying to create and control a small piece of the Sun, on Earth. It’s really hard to do. Generating the temperatures necessary to induce fusion of hydrogen requires enormous inputs of energy. Moreover, the Sun relies on pressure from its gravity to induce fusion of hydrogen atoms. To get a hydrogen gas to a state hot enough to create fusion (known as a plasma) requires that gas to reach temperatures of about 100 million degrees Celsius. The temperature of the core of the Sun is estimated to be about 15 million degrees by comparison. But the big question is, how do you harness something that’s 100 million degrees? And that has been the question that’s stopped fusion from joining and probably taking over the world’s energy mix.

A common refrain among fusion enthusiasts and engineers is that nuclear fusion is just 30 years away – and has been so for at least 40 years. Every so often, the prospects of nuclear fusion as a common power source seem to brighten, only to dim again as engineering challenges refuse solutions. Until now, almost all research and progress in nuclear fusion technology has come from major inter-governmental programmes or national fusion laboratories working with leading universities.

Yet, in the past few years, a small band of scientists and engineers, some demoralised by slow progress in existing labs, have begun to work on small-scale projects, taking start-up approach to the engineering problems, which could finally yield the long awaited solution of how to commercialise nuclear fusion power. Along the way, they have opened up opportunities for early stage investors, keen to see fusion power become reality – and possibly become the world’s first trillionaires in the process.

Find the full article in the June issue of The Peak: 20170601 – Peak Magazine – Ryan Swift