Investments in nuclear fusion soar as advances bring clean energy closer

Private investment in nuclear fusion has exploded in 2022, with the amount of funding more than doubling the industry’s total historic investment in a single year.

The figures come from the second Global Report on the Fusion Industry published by the Fusion Industry Association (FIA). It shows that the amount of private investment in mergers totals $4.7 billion, eclipsing the $117 million in public investment reported by surveyed companies. Of this total, $2.83 billion in new financing has been reported in the year since the previous survey.

Nuclear fusion refers to the process of combining two atomic nuclei, which creates a single heavier atom in addition to huge amounts of energy as a byproduct. It’s the same process that powers the sun, where hydrogen atoms are fused together under intense heat and pressure to form helium.

Fusion reactor under construction
A photo shows the Wendelstein 7-X nuclear fusion reactor under construction in October 2013, at the Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics in Greifswald, Germany. Nuclear fusion promises to be a clean and virtually unlimited source of energy.
Sean Gallup/Getty

Fusion is essentially the opposite of nuclear fission, in which atoms are pulled apart. Nuclear fission is the process that powers modern nuclear reactors. However, fusion is believed to have several advantages over fission, such as the fact that fusion produces more energy, produces few radioactive particles, and is not self-sustaining, which means that reactors with fusion will not melt as fission reactors might.

Fusion reactors also produce no greenhouse gases, soot or acid rain, and the fuel needed to power the reactions is plentiful, according to Binus University.

Unfortunately, scientists have not found a way to viably generate electricity from fusion energy. The problem is that current reactors generally consume more energy than they produce.

An example of this can be found in tokamaks, one of many nuclear fusion reactor designs under investigation and one of the best funded today. They work by circulating a ring of plasma in which fusion can occur, producing heat in the process which can then power a turbine. However, tokamaks require powerful energy-draining magnets in order to keep the plasma contained.

Work is nonetheless ongoing, with several other types of reactors under consideration and minor breakthroughs announced from time to time. Now it looks like we can expect the pace to pick up.

The FIA’s 2022 report showed there were 33 responses to its survey this year, marking a significant increase from 23 the previous year. The report also included figures showing that the total number of private merger companies has grown more strongly in the past five years or so than at any other time – and the trend does not appear to be abating.

The vast majority of fusion companies that responded to his new survey were developing nuclear fusion for energy purposes, although some were also looking to other markets like propulsion systems in the space and marine industries.

“When the history books are written on fusion energy, the past 12 months will be seen as a watershed moment when it became clear that fusion would move out of the labs and into the marketplace,” wrote Andrew Holland, CEO of the FIA, in a foreword to the report.

“Expectations remain consistent with last year, with the vast majority of companies predicting that the merger will power the network for the first time at some point in the 2030s, although a more detailed breakdown of this issue this year shows a leaning towards the first half of the decade.”

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