Headlines went abuzz in 2021 when researchers from MIT and a privately funded fusion company produced the most potent high-temperature superconducting magnets in the world. With a field strength of 20 Teslas, the magnets could lift more than 400 Boeing 747s!
The news was no less exciting in early 2022 when China’s research facility, dubbed the “Artificial Sun”, held plasma at a temperature five times hotter than the sun for a record 17 minutes. Similarly, in Europe, the thrill was palpable when scientists at Oxford’s JET lab produced a fusion energy output of 59 mega-joules doubling their previous record.
Over the last few years, fusion has enjoyed several moments in the spotlight for incredible feats of scientific and technological progress.
But way too often, the conversation about fusion is framed around its potential as a game-changing clean energy source. In contrast, its potential impact in other areas of everyday life gets far less emphasis. “Fusion Energy Is Coming, and Maybe Sooner Than You Think,” says one headline; “Nuclear Fusion Power Inches Closer to Reality,” says another, pointing to fusion’s capacity as a promising electricity source.
The promise of clean, cheap, limitless energy is undoubtedly alluring. But in a world getting wary of unmet climate targets amid raging energy crises and rising energy bills, the narrative of fusion as the next disruptive energy source, which is still a couple of decades away, needs a new supplement – a supplement to enthuse a broader mass of supporters.
Beyond clean energy, fusion holds a vast promise which is worth emphasizing as well. Think of the various industries that serve our daily needs and how fusion plays a significant role in their advancement. Think about getting out of bed and turning on the lights. Many flat, low-profile lamps, flushed aesthetically with walls and ceilings, today use the energy-efficient micro-plasma lighting technology advanced through fusion research.
Think about sitting at the table with a laptop, turning on the TV or just scrolling through news feeds on a smartphone. Advances in plasma research have helped improve the manufacture of integrated silicon chips and semiconductors, which are the lifeblood of these electronic devices.
Catching a flight at 7am tomorrow? The aircraft engines are likely coated with plasma-treated ceramic powder to improve safety and efficiency.
How about the doctor’s appointment later this afternoon? It’s probably worth it because the hospital has state-of-the-art Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scanners – a technology buoyed by advancements in the superconducting magnets used in fusion reactors.
Fusion could be the gateway to huge strides in many industries – from synthetic fuels to medical diagnosis, next-generation magnets to spacecraft propulsion, and transmission lines to cancer treatment devices – many of which are multi-billion-dollar markets.
Asides from the technologies directly or indirectly gotten out of fusion, the field also produces experts, scientists, and technologists who can contribute their skills and knowledge to the broader scientific, engineering, and manufacturing communities worldwide.
So, while fusion is hitting new milestones and getting more media attention, what can we all do to advance interest beyond clean energy?
Two things, as I shared on a recent panel: First is to stay tuned to the latest developments. In the last three years alone, a lot has happened. More private capital flowed into fusion start-ups offering a nimbler complement to the more traditional multilateral programmes like the 35-nation ITER.
Commonwealth Fusion Systems, TAE Technologies, Tokamak Energy, and several others have now raised a cumulative total funding of about $5b, with most of it coming in the last three years. As funding soared, so did the use of new advanced technologies to bolster fusion research, from supercomputers to machine learning.
Staying abreast with these developments is key to understanding the possibilities of fusion beyond clean energy.
The second is to become the bridge builder, sharing progress among the wider network, forging links between industries, and bringing the seemingly disparate parts together to cross-pollinate ideas.
By sharing progress and building bridges, the fusion industry can win broader investor support, attract top talent, and potentially enjoy more favourable policies like the one proposed at the Institute.
Early signs of cross-pollination are already emerging. Between public and private research institutions, we see examples like MIT, in partnership with Commonwealth Fusion Systems developing a next-generation fusion research experiment, SPARC, as a precursor to a practical, emissions-free power plant. We see the UKAEA forging closer links with private companies – both UK-based and foreign.
We see funding rounds for fusion start-ups attracting a more diverse pool from the investment side. Big tech companies, oil and gas giants, sovereign funds, private equity, and pension funds actively participate.
Fusion might be one of those technologies stretching optimism to its very limits, but it’s the same optimism that landed us on the moon. As Sir Tony Blair mentioned on his recent visit to Culham, "it is critical that we keep striving forwards to tackle one of the greatest scientific and engineering challenges of our time".
Fusion is coming, and now’s the time to get the word out there and win more champions, from the software engineer to the insurance broker.