The Fusion Race is On

Who will win the biggest technology race of the century? China, Germany, the UK, or the USA?

Sometimes predictions are right, like in the case of the current climate crisis, but often real change sneaks upon us. The biggest discoveries catch us all off guard, like in the case of the internet and automation.

There is another breakthrough discovery that no one in society is talking about or prepared for: clean, safe, and superabundant fusion energy.

There is another breakthrough discovery that no one in society is talking about or prepared for: clean, safe, and superabundant fusion energy.

Teams in China, Germany, both coasts of the US, and the UK are running the fusion race. They are getting their billions of dollars in backing from governments, universities, billionaires, startups and large companies. And whoever wins will become as wealthy and as powerful Standard Oil’s Rockefellers.

The winners of this race will achieve the monumental legacy of launching human civilization into the next phase of our history.

Fusion energy sounds unbelievable when you first hear about it.

Fusion energy means making a small star here on earth and then using its heat to make electricity.

Sounds like science fiction, right?

It is 100% emission-free (like nuclear energy), but produces no radioactive waste or fallout (the only byproduct is some helium), no expensive inputs (the fuel is a small amount of hydrogen), and the reactors cannot “meltdown” or “go nuclear” (anything goes wrong and the reaction just fizzles out). And the energy density of fusion is far higher than fossil fuels and infinitely higher than renewables (bye-bye thousands of acres of solar panels and wind farms).

And you can’t make bombs out of it.

It sounds like a fantasy, but it is very, very real. Teams of scientists all over the world are spending billions of dollars and racing at breakneck speed to make the first fusion reactor.

The Teams in The Race

Here is a rundown of the biggest teams in the fusion race.

China has no oil. They have a ton of coal but they know burning it all would mean ecological disaster. Fusion for China means fossil fuel independence and that means geopolitical energy dominance. They have strong motivations to be the first across the fusion finish line.

As the BBC reported in April of 2018, China has built a classic donut-shaped fusion reactor called a “Tokamak.” Their reactor aptly named—Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (or EAST)—was able to sustain 100 seconds of stable fusion plasma, a world record at that time.

Inside a classic donut-shaped tokamak

As the race heats up for fusion, expect China to start making major investments to keep up and eventually dominate fusion. They have the incentives and the infrastructural knowledge and will to build fusion facilities at the scale Western countries have not been able to muster.

If Elon Musk renamed ITER, he would call it “The Big Ass Tokamak” because that’s what it is.

ITER is insanely massive. Their organization and its reactor.

ITER is… Huge.

They expect their massive reactor to be finished and operational by the mid-2040s but remember they are way over budget and way behind schedule, so take their predictions with a grain of salt.

In my opinion, ITER may never be finished if other runners of the fusion race figure out how to build smaller, leaner reactors before ITER can even fire itself up.

The Germans are doing what they do best to win the fusion race: sophisticated engineering. Nothing could be more sophisticated than their “Stellarator” fusion reactor W7-X. Here’s what it looks like:

The W7-X Stellarator uses artificial intelligence to design its curvy electromagnetic “bottle” (blue) that contains fusion plasma (yellow) more efficiently than the standard donut-shaped Tokamak.

A recent breakthrough in plasma physics discovered that hydrogen plasma moves in a corkscrew. So the Germans gave their reactor this bizarre helical shape and that helps keep the fusion plasma (yellow) more stable at higher temperatures for longer.

In 2018 the W7-X also achieved the milestone of 100 seconds of stable fusion plasma. They shut down for enhancements and predict that when W7-X reopens in 2021 it will be able to achieve a whopping 30 minutes of continuous plasma—long enough, commentators speculate, to run viable commercial power plant.

In 2018, MIT launched a fusion project that is arguably the most cutting edge and to me looks like the most likely to succeed. They called their little baby—SPARC.

SPARC is a normal donut-shaped Tokamak but it is incredibly tiny. Now, usually, in the world of fusion reactors, bigger is better. Bigger reactors mean hotter, and more stable plasma—meaning a more consistent source of heat for around the clock commercial energy production. So why is MIT making a baby reactor?

Here’s a rendering of Umpa-Loompas working on the MIT SPARC reactor.

MIT decided to make a small Tokamak but this little guy packs an enormous punch. Remember that Tokamaks use magnetic fields to create a “bottle” of hydrogen plasma. Well SPARC will have the strongest magnetic bottle ever built.

SPARC is making its magnetic bottle out of a breakthrough new material called “high-temperature superconductors”. This metal has to be kept at liquid nitrogen temperatures at all times, and a pound of it takes tens of thousands of dollars to make. But at the end of the day, the electromagnetic field the material gives off is many times that of regular conductors. And if you can build a tokamak out of the stuff, it means the plasma can be as hot and unstable as you want—no sweat.

The scientists at SPARC say the size of the reactor is one of its strengths. Whereas large reactors like ITER and EAST need billions of dollars of infrastructure just to build their sites, SPARC reactors can be built and live inside retrofitted facilities, even converted powerplants. In theory, one could rip the guts out of an oil or coal plant and put a SPARC reactor in, instead.

Next up is the ol’ daddy of the USA—the United Kingdom. Just a week ago, they announced a $280M investment in a new fusion reactor called STEP—Spherical Tokamak for Energy Production. As its name suggests, STEP uses a spherical Tokamak where the plasma sits in an orb in the center of a field of electromagnets.

Inside a spherical tokamak

Another UK company Tokamak Energy plans to achieve commercial fusion by as soon as 2030.

Lockheed Martin’s skunkworks just filed a patent for a smaller reactor called a Compact Fusion Reactor (CFR) that uses SPARC-like high-temperature superconducting magnets, but instead of the standard donut-shaped Tokamak is a cylinder. We’ll see.

TAE Technologies is based in California and they are using silicone Valley tech, talent, and money to build what they think is the fastest way to fusion. A cylindrical reactor. Other investors in this private company are Goldman Sachs and the Russian Government. Nothing to see here folks.

General Fusion is a Canadian company that is using a process called Magnetized Target Fusion (MTF) to achieve commercial fusion energy. Below is a picture of General Fusion’s reactor. Those big tubes are huge electromagnetic pistons that pump synchronously increasing the pressure of plasma in the reactor to produce fusion.

Like SPARC General Fusion is positioning itself to make a smaller, more manageable reactor.

Who Will Win?

The race is just beginning and fusion is just at the bottom of the Gartner Hype Cycle. As expectations grow, so will investment dollars and public excitement about this new and amazing technology.

Stay tuned!

Educator, Founder, Engineer. Interested in Evidence Based Education and Solving BIG Problems.