Commercially Viable Nuclear Fusion Is Closer Than Ever

Engineering 3D model of a TOKAMAK thermal nuclear fusion engine

The Goal of Reducing Climate Change

The OECD advisory on climate change (Green Grown Studies) states that a multi-pronged approach is required to reduce, stop, or reverse climate change. The critical stages in the energy lifecycle that need to be addressed include:

  • Energy generation
  • Transportation
  • Conversion
  • Storage
  • Consumption
    • Smart-grid technology
    • Smart-homes
    • Smart Manufacturing
    • Smart circuits and computer chips

Of all the green / renewable sources of power, nuclear fusion has the biggest potential impact. Nuclear fusion is the holy grail of renewable green energy sources and has the potential to drastically reduce CO2 output by replacing other fossil fuels such as coal-fired electricity plants. Other potential sources of renewable power such as solar, wind, geothermal, and hydro offer benefits over non-renewable power such as coal, and oil and gas, but none have the potential to output as much clean energy as realizing commercial of nuclear fusion.  However, a future global energy production system will likely include all those above mentioned sources of power to balance risk.

The great news is that while achieving viable nuclear fusion capable of supporting commercial power needs has been a long slow road, the past 10 years has seen a resurgence of developments that are hopeful and inspiring, perhaps indicating that we will see nuclear fusion in our lifetimes.

The Race for Commercial Nuclear Fusion

Nuclear fusion is fundamentally different than nuclear fission which had already reached commercial viability some 50+ years ago. Although not yet commercially viable today, nuclear fusion avoids several of the drawbacks of fission power generation, such as radioactively contaminated fuel waste, and the potential for a large-scale nuclear disaster. Nuclear fusion does not involve a nuclear chain reaction, so the reaction contains itself in the case of a disaster.

As seen in the timeline chart below nuclear fusion has seen a resurgence in patenting. Following annual USPTO patent grants for US, CPC, and International classification schemes shows a clear burst of fusion related patenting activity in the past decade that has not been seen since the 1980’s (CPC data is only available since 2013).

Nuclear fusion can be broadly broken down to two separate approaches, thermal nuclear which involves super-heating matter to very high temperatures of millions of degrees Celsius (comparable to the temperature of a star), and cold-fusion which instead uses pressure to cause the reaction. In both thermal and cold fusion, the matter releases vast amounts of energy making nuclear fusion a potentially world changing technology.

While the development of viable commercial nuclear fusion reactors has been elusive for several decades, the past few years has seen developments that are making the realization of commercial thermal nuclear power generation much more likely in the foreseeable future. Below are some data provided to visualize the past decade of patenting activity for thermal nuclear technology.

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Understanding The State Of The Art

A very brief summary of how thermal nuclear power works goes something like this: A source of fuel matter (deuterium and tritium, both heavy isotopes of hydrogen) is transformed into a plasma using powerful superconducting electro-magnetic coils. When the plasma is in a super-heated (100 million degrees) and closely controlled environment,the fuel particles will combine (fuse) together. This fusion of atoms releases much of its energy as fast-moving super-charged neutrons.  Those neutrons can be directly captured by a liquid, which is the simplest and currently the most feasible form of power capture.  Another more scientifically elusive, mostly theoretical capture process involves capturing the energy in a “blanket” of lithium surrounding the reactor core.  Finally, a fission-fusion hybrid process of capture uses the supercharged neutrons to enrich a radioactive fuel source to enduce a nuclear fusion reaction.

The TOKAMAK reactor is by far the most common type of reactor in development and TOKAMAK variant development projects include MIT’s SPARC (SPARC on Wikipedia) and the world’s largest TOKAMAK project, Europe’s ITER (ITER on Wikipedia) have both gained positive net energy output and are projected to have 10x positive output in the foreseeable future.

Most recently, scientific developments in the realm of material science have created breakthrough superconducting material known as HTS Tape or High Temperature Superconducting Tape which is capable of producing and holding a high magnetic charge, while also diffusing heat at a high rate.  This allows the fusion reactor’s elector-magnetic coils to operate for sustained periods of time while also producing the required magnetic charge to effectively transform fuel into plasma.

Diagram of HTS Superconducting Tape


The video conference from MIT below is a good primer on the current state and challenges facing TOKAMAK reactors on the pathway to becoming commercially viable.  The video discusses the overall technology of the TOKAMAK fusion reactor and the role of various physiological aspects to gaining positive power out from a thermal fusion generator.

Who Will Own Fusion Capabilities?

While patents are far from being a comprehensive indicator of which organizations will profit from implementation of fusion reactors, they do reveal who owns exclusive licensing rights to various associated technologies.

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