Motives, Challenges, and Candidates for 2035 Deployment
This page, still in progress, summarizes some motives and challenges, then provides a compendium of companies working towards the commercial deployment of nuclear fusion power. This article also explains how getting government approval to start building a power plant will take at least five years, which no one is doing anything about at all yet, making the numerous promises to have fusion working within a couple of years totally vacuous. On the other hand, this article observes that the trend since 1968 indicates fusion power plants will become possible in the early 2030s, before which the increasing number of executive teams and lack of experienced employees is likely to cause consolidation.
About the Author: After retiring from a long career in technical journalism and engineering specification in silicon valley, I became interested in fusion power earlier this year due to a deep concern about climate change. After the loss of all Arctic ice, which could be as soon as 2035, nuclear fusion is becoming the last, best hope to avoid a consequential near-extinction event, without international emergency measures placing the world in total chaos.
In August 2020, National Geographic reported that Arctic sea ice loss could be as soon as 2035. The article described the results of the MOSAIC Polarstern ice cutter, which embedded itself in an ice flow that took it through the middle of the Arctic.
After a year of data collection and analysis by an international coalition of 200 scientists, MOSAIC concluded the Arctic sea ice was much thinner than previously estimated, and that Arctic ice less than 3 feet thick covered a much larger area, even though the total area of the ice coverage was about the same in 2011 and 2022. Data from the ESA CryoSat2 satellite indicates COVID bought no reprieve. (Click on the illustration to see for yourself).
NASA's IceSat2 satellite, which the USA uses to measure ice thickness, has since been offline. NASA continues to estimate the year of Arctic ice loss from the area rather than depth data, which still indicates total loss at the September minimum between 2050 and 2070, as originally used to set the net-zero carbon emissions target for the Paris Accord. By area estimates, the ice is not vanishing so fast, so other nations have more of a sense of urgency than the USA, which was too distracted by COVID to give much attention to MOSAIC's findings.
In the last few years, the Ukraine war and COVID have delayed and lessened global initiatives to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. Currently, the most greenhouse-gas emissions are by China in total, and by the USA per citizen. The Biden administration has made magnificent efforts, for example putting greenhouse-gas reduction inside an Inflation Reduction Act to get it passed. On the other hand, China is refusing any sacrifices that would place it at an economic disadvantage to the USA because another Trumpist presidency would exploit them.
NRE Recovery by Eliminating Transmission-Line Fees
Humboldt Bay's local grid has a maximum capacity of 100MW, and the grid is already saturated in Southern Humboldt, so a 50MW fusion reactor in Southern Humboldt would make sense to reduce the total $2.6 billion in grid upgrades that PG&E says is necessary. The problem is exacerbated in Humboldt by the refusal to replace the decommissioned fission power plant here with any type of power plant at all, so all Humboldt residents pay a >$1000/year 'transmission-line surcharge' and many don't even know other counties don't pay it.
I am suggesting a 50MW fusion plant could pay for itself without raising electricity bills simply by redirecting the transmission-line charges. But as the University isn't even creating qualifications for higher-paying jobs on the windmill farm, due to start construction in ~16 months, thinking ahead as far as fusion is very difficult. I am the only person within 300 miles who knows anything about fusion except perhaps that ITER is very large. There is also a cognition gap to overcome in fusion-power deployment.
- In this Section:
- Skepticism on Progress
- Absence of Qualified Staff
- 3-Year Environmental Impact Delay
- Further 2-Year Permit Approval and Contractor Delay
Amidst the rush to overcome the technical hurdles, pragmatic hurdles to deployment are being ignored. Environmental impact study, permit approval, contractor scheduling, and qualified staff to run nuclear fusion plants could delay actual deployment by another five years if the processes are not initiated in the next year.
Skepticism on Progress
In December 2022, Lawrence Livermore Labs announced 'net-gain fusion.' The announcement was flawed in that it did not properly clarify the difference between net-gain plasma energy, compared to the net-gain total energy. Nonetheless, the milestone marks significant progress from 30& net-gain plasma energy last year, and from 70& net-gain plasma energy in August, marking a significant acceleration in laser confined fusion that neither uses the most efficient lasers available, nor use other confinement technologies, such as the traditional electromagnetic confinement, and more significantly, newer mechanical confinement technologies.
December's 'net gain' was only the ratio of plasma energy absorption to energy emission, and did not include the energy loss from Livermore's rather inefficient lasers. Specific numbers from different sources vary, with ~3Mj energy output from ~2Mhj plasma input, with the lasers needed to trigger the reaction actually consuming ~460Mj. The Department of Energy's announcement of 'the most significant event of the 21st century' fizzled out, with about half the media sneering at the accomplishment as delusive, intended to raise more funding rather than to indicate any likelihood of fusion power ever becoming commercial at all. That was partly because the Department of Energy intended to announce the accomplishment in the new year, timing it to attain better coverage, and providing a better account of the next planned steps. But the story was leaked, and the Department of Energy had to rush out an announcement before it was really ready.
Ignored in the cynicism is the rate of progress being made in fusion. Livermore itself reached ~70% energy output from plasma absorption in August. This continues the trend of doubling the energy output ratio every 18 months, as famously compared to the same rate of development of Moore's law, as shown by Dr. Sanquez. In November 2021, the American Physical Society published the right-hand diagram, from the following open-source document:
A large number of companies are working on 'pulsed fusion reactors,' which do not try to attain continuous 'fusion ignition,' but instead make a spark of fusion and then let it go out. This reduces the containment and power input required, and moreover the size of the reactor. The giant ITER fusion project, which is all most people know about since the USA withdrew from fusion development after canceling the supercollider project in the 1990s, is massive, and will take another 20-30 years to complete, because it aims at continuous fusion ignition. But the new pulsed reactors are much smaller, with reaction chambers only 6 feet or less in size, aiming to provide a fusion power station within four to fourteen years.
Also ignored in the criticism is that Livermore has yet to integrate First Light's technology with lasers, on which some discussion is below. I just started talks with Livermore about integration, some of which will not be held up by license or security problems because First Light placed it in the public domain.
Absence of Qualified Staff
For example, so far neglected is the rapid need for more qualified staff. With so many job openings a year after Commonwealth Fusion Systems raised $1.8B in additional venture funding, I've started to talk with Universities about adding more fusion-oriented classes, but I will need more support to overcome sloth and cynicism.
3-Year Environmental Impact Delay
Humboldt Bay's 135MW windmill farm just completed its environmental review in the fall of 2022. It took three years and required comments from two dozen federal, state, and local agencies.
The full comments for the environmental report are 250MB. Here you can download the 885-page, approved environmental impact report with comment summaries:
Here is the Bureau of Ocean Management's Authorization process. There is not yet any formal authorization process like this for fusion power plants:
Advocates of fusion power are surprised to think an environmental review might be necessary, due to fusion's carbon-free energy production. There is still generated heat to dispose of, which will impact air and water. More importantly, the fusion fuel is radioactive, and there will be some radioactive waste from the replacement of reactor walls as they are infused with neutrons and gamma rays during operation. Notwithstanding, the volume of radioactive waste is small, as commercial fusion reactor chambers are all less than six feet in diameter. Also, some areas require earthquake-proofing.
Further 2-Year Permit Approval and Contractor Delay
The permit approval phase will take 18 months, after which contractors will need to schedule work and employee relocation. That means, if plans to commercialize fusion before the end of 2030 are realized, then the approval process should be starting now. In combination, this 2021 report from the National Academy of Sciences did not believe that a fully functioning fusion power plant could be completed before 2045:
- In this Section:
- Avalanche Energy
- Canadian Nuclear Laboratories
- Commonwealth Fusion Systems
- Compact Fusion Inc.
- Crossfield Fusion Ltd
- CTFusion Inc.
- Electric Fusion Systems, Inc.
- First Light Fusion
- Focused Energy
- Fusion Fuel
- General Fusion
- HB11 Energy
- Helical Fusion
- Horne Technologies
- HyperJet Fusion Corporation
- Marvel Fusion
- Mitsubishi Heavy Industry
- NearStar Fusion Inc.
- NK Labs
- Princeton Fusion Systems
- Princeton Stellerators Inc.
- Realta Fusion
- Renaissance Fusion
- Tokamak Energy
- Type One Energy Corp.
- Scimer Energy
- Voss Scientific
- Woodruff Scientific
- Zap Energy
Being first to market has long been held to be the most important factor in future market dominance, although some players, such as Bezos' General Fusion, are aiming for larger plants later. The first player to market wins more market share and has the first revenue stream, enabling it to purchase other companies and grow faster than the lagging competition.
Among the companies at the front of the race are Helion, First Light, and Commonwealth Fusion Systems. With the Livermore net-gain announcement, we can expect a bouquet of new venture-funded companies that not only will try to beat the current leaders, but also cooperate on manufacturing components for each other, which will become crucial if the USA is to replace all its fossil-fule plants with fusion plants within the next two decades.
The Institute of Plasma Physics, Chinese Academy of Sciences ("ASIPP," Hefei, Anhui, China) has been working on magnetically confined fusion since 1978. It has built the HT-6B, HT-6M, HT-7, the first superconducting tokamak in China, and EAST, the world’s first non-circle cross-section full superconducting tokamak. Founded in 2006, China’s Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (EAST) at the Hefel Institutes of Physical Sciences maintained a plasma temperature of 120 million degrees Celsius for 101 seconds, and of 160 million Celsius for 20 seconds, in May 2021. EAST is supplying components to ITER and plans its own reactor, CFETR, after ITER's completion.
Avalanche Energy Systems (Seattle, WA) purports to be 'designing, testing, and building micro fusion reactors that you can hold in your hand.' As of December 2022, its website had no information on executive or board members, an empty blog, and one opening for a plasma physicist.
Canadian Nuclear Laboratories
Vancouver-based Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL) has just partnered with First Light Fusion to make a tritium manufacturing plant. See 'First Light Fusion' for more information.
Commonwealth Fusion Systems
Founded in 2018, Commonwealth Fusion Systems ("CFS,"" Cambridge, Mass.) received an additional $1.8B in financing in December 2021, making it the best-funded company as of November 2022. It plans to build a tokamak reactor with its superconducting magnet technology.
In September 2022, CFS demonstrated with MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center that 16 plates of its High-Temperature-Superconductor (HTS) electromagnets can reach a sustained magnetic field of more than 20 tesla, with each plate consuming only 30 Watts. The superconducting material is a rare-earth barium copper oxide (ReBCO) operating at 20 degrees Kelvin. A ribbon-shaped version of ReBCO only became commercially accessible several years ago. For more details, a presentation from CFS' Dr. Salaazar is available for download below.
CFS is already supplying components for other fusion reactors, and has a partnership with UK's Atomic Energy Authority. It's also possible it's supplying the European ITER project, which means it would be working with the Texan remnants from USA's discontinued supercollider project also now providing components to Iter.
CFS moved into its new HQ on the same day as the Department of Energy's net-gain energy announcement. As of December 2022, CFS currently has maybe a hundred job openings, with its main engineering facility in Devens (Mass.) constructing its SPARC reactor. It also has satellite offices in Somerville (Mass.) and Milpitas (Calif.).
SPARC is intended to attain a fusion gain, or Q-factor, of at least 2, implying that twice as much fusion energy is generated as the amount used to sustain a reaction. A demonstration device is scheduled to be completed in 2025.
Compact Fusion Inc.
Possibly a military partnership with Sandia Labs and/or Lockheed Martin, Compact Fusion Inc. ("CFI", Santa Fe, NM) was founded in 2017 and is working on a compact modular fusion using a cross between liquid-metal compression and reversing rotating electromagnetic fields. As of December 2022 its website reports it is in 'stealth mode,' and has probably been subsumed into Woodruff Scientific. Its last found activity was in 2019.
Crossfield Fusion Ltd
Founded in 2019, Crossfield Fusion had been developing a 'novel compact fusion reactor' based on the 'Epicyclotron' (US patent# 8138692). The website reports it developed a working fusion device in 2021. But in October 2021, completed experimental work and detailed ‘particle-in-cell’ modeling of energy loss indicated the reactor design would not scale, and therefore the design could not produce net-gain fusion. The company is currently exploring hydrogen isotope separation. There is no further information on its website.
Seattle-based CTFusion proposes on-axisymmetric, fully inductive magnetic helicity injectors to form and sustain compact, magnetized plasmas. It is led by a team of scientists, three with PhDs.
irvine-based Duetelio is led by a prior ITER scientist who has not been able to obtain venture funding because he doesn't believe fusion will be commercial until the 2050s. It is therefore crowdfunded. Duetelio hopes to build a theta-pinch Polamac reactor with superconducting magnets.
Electric Fusion Systems, Inc.
Electric Fusion Systems (Broomfield, Colorado) states that it demonstrated fusion reactions with its tabletop-sized fusion reactor in 2021. EFS contracted with Voss Scientific for simulation.
ENN Energy is one of the largest clean-energy distributors in China. Founded in 2006, the ENN Energy Research Institute received ~$110 million in financing and is working on two separate fusion projects: a spherical tokamak, called EXL-50, and a field-reversed configuration, the EHL HeLong Experiment. Also, ENN's Center for Compact Fusion (CCF), founded in 2018, plans to demonstrate a net gain in 10~15 years, claiming a long-term budget of US$150 million per year. The CCF program has tripled its staff to ~100 members since its foundation.
Japan's first fusion company EX-Fusion (Osaka, Japan) raised $1.97 million JPY as of April 2022. As of December 2022, its website has three engineering positions open.
First Light Fusion
Founded in 2011, Oxford-based First Light fusion (FLF) is developing a new kind of energy input from a giant gun, called 'pulsed projectile inertia fusion confinement,' in contrast with Livermores 'laser fusion confinement.' FLF's initiation of a fusion reaction creating tritium was corroborated by the UK's Atomic Energy Authority in April. Earlier in December 2022, FLF announced a partnership with Canadian National Labs (CNL) to develop a tritium manufacturing plant. Tritium is very expensive due to the USA decommissioning its fusion power plants, and it is now rather inefficiently produced in some breeder reactors, with a market price of $30,000/gram, and going up.
FLF embeds a little fuel pellet inside a glassy capsule about 2" on a side, with carefully positioned air bubbles around the fuel. FLF then hits the capsule with a high-speed projectile from a custom-built 'big fusion gun' (BFG). The projectile needs to be ten times faster than a bullet, so the BFG hits a little bullet with a bigger bullet to make the projectile fast enough. The BFG's barrel is ~80' long.
The shockwave from the projectile's impact compresses the fuel pellet from several millimeters to ~100 microns, converting it to highly heated plasma and triggering a brief fusion reaction. FLF notes that the actual number of fusion nuclei are very small, in the order of 50, making their simulation predictions extremely accurate from its custom-written fluid-dynamics simulators. CNL is also looking at adding lasers to increase yield from 10Hz pulses in its tritium manufacturing plant.
FLF needs neither lasers nor electromagnetic fields to heat up the plasma, only needing gunpowder to start the fusion reaction. That drops the cost of fusion through the floor. Via its simple design and fast-turnaround methodology, FLF believes itself capable of extremely rapid progress. FLF is committed to its fusion powerplant in the 2030s. Being funded by Oxford University, and led by post-doctorates from Oxford University, FLF is more likely to keep its commitment than not.
investors in the German/American startup Focused Energy include Prime Movers Lab, Alex Rodriguez, Marc Lore, and Tony Florence of New Enterprise Associates. It has announced some technical accomplishments and presents on its Website its lead team, which has published >1,650 papers.
Portugal-based Fusion Fuel (FF) has raised 46 million euros in the last six months and signed sales contracts totaling 7 million, as well as signing an exclusive agreement to build the first solar-to-hydrogen plant with Electus in Bakersfield, California. See press release. Note that FF is producing hydrogen power, not fusion power, despite its name.
Founded by Bezos, Vancouver-based General Fusion is similar to First Light Fusion that it doesn't need magnetic coils or lasers to heat the plasma. Instead, it makes a ball of gas inside liquid metal which it pounds with pneumatic pistons. General Fusion believes it will have positive yields from bursts of fusion sustained for about five seconds by the end of the decade. It plans power plants costing $10 billion in about 15 years. It is still in the startup phase and is still acquiring engineering staff.
Based in Australia, HB11 Energy uses laser chirped-pulse amplification (CPA) to attain Boron-11 chain reactions at lower temperatures than needed for fusion ignition. It received some funding from Australia’s 'Trailblazer Universities' program in October 2022. As of December 2022 seeking more investment.
Founded in October 2021, Japan-based Helical fusion hopes to build a magnetic-confinement reactor and to be a component supplier. It is believed to have access to the 'large helical device' it Toki (Gifu, Japan), held to be the world's second-largest stellarator.
Founded in 2018, HelicitySpace (Berkeley, CA) plans to build fusion propulsion systems.
Seed-funded in 2019, Horne Technnologises LLC (Longmont, CO) completed first-round funding in 2022. In 2022, It stated it is close to completion of a hybrid fusion reactor with inertial electrostatic heating and cryogenically-cooled superconducting magnets, inside a large vacuum chamber, with 50KeV plasma temperatures. It plans a third-generation device with 5T magnets and 100KeV plasm in 2023.
HyperJet Fusion Corporation
Originated from ARPA in 2017, HyperJet Fusion Corporation (Chantilly, VA) manufactures plasma guns and is working on a plasma-jet driven magneto-inertial fusion reactor.
Vancouver-based Helion is the pulsed-fusion company with the closest commitment. It has promised to attain net-gain electricity output with its 7th-generation, 1Hz-pulsed prototype from helium3 and deuterium fuel in 2024. However, Helion has a long reputation for not meeting its publicly stated goals.
If successful, Helion might have a 50MW power plant in 2029~2031. It will use ignitionless, 10Hz-pulsed, low-gain, high-efficiency direct input energy recovery, with 95% of the plasma’s input energy directly converted to electricity by conduction in the chamber wall. Fusion energy recovery is slightly less, ~80%, due to neutron and X-ray emissions. With the high-end Q of 3 from Helion’s reported range of 2~3., the generator needs 0.5kWh for the first pulse. The power for the first pulse is stored in a capacitor bank before it reaches the generator. Allowing 500Wh for conversion loss, ohmic, loss, radiation loss, and capacitive inefficiencies, the capacitor bank needs about an hour's charge to start the reactor from a standard U.S. 110W wall outlet. Each pulse contains ~2.4KWh of total energy, of which ~500Wh is recirculated for the next pulse and ~1.4kWh is net output.
Helion is planning to mass produce their machines and ship them to their final location by road. If it demonstrates net electricity in 2024 as planned, they next plan to hire >1,000 staff to produce 20 fusion generators/day. That would be ~365GW/year. enough to serve all the US grid in <4 years, and replace the electricity production in <8 years.
Initially funded by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, LPPFUSION (Middlesex, NJ) is working on its 'dense plasma focus device,' which is two cylindrical metal electrodes nested inside each other. The outer electrode is generally <7" in diameter and 12" long. The electrodes are enclosed in a vacuum chamber, with aneutronic, hydrogen-boron (pB11) fuel in a low-pressure gas between them.
Mitsubishi Heavy Industry
MIH is making the 54 Diverter Outer Vertical Targets for ITER. It took 7 months to build the first 4, completed in December 2021, and is now working on the next 6. See MIH Press Release.
Founded in 2008, MIFTI (Irvine, Los Angeles) raised >$4M to pursue a phase-stabilized Z-pinch reactor.
NearStar Fusion Inc.
Princeton Fusion Systems
Princeton Stellerators Inc.
Founded in September 2022, Wisconsin-based Realta hopes to raise a few hundred million dollars over the next three years. See Press Report.
Type One Energy Corp.
Voss Scientific, LLC (Albuquerque, New Mexico) provides fusion simulation software called Chicago. One of its customers is CTFusion.
Based in Santa Fe (NM), Woodruff has been building custom magnetic field coils, pulsed power systems, and instrumentation for fusion since 2005.
Based just north of Seattle and expanding to 100 employees this year, Zap Energy hopes to make a tubular Z pinch fusion chamber small enough to fit into a pickup truck bed. Zap uses a pulse of electrical current that creates the plasma and squeezes it from a diffuse column into a thin line that's stable and dense enough to fuse. No superconducting magnets are needed.
Zap believes its newest reactor, the Fuze-Q, could reach net gain as soon as 2023, although it cautions that "fusion is a graveyard littered with overpromises." After that, Zap plans to double the electrical current and increase energy output tenfold, so Zap does not believe it inconceivable that it could have a power plant at the end of this decade.
Currently, in the race to fusion, all the attention is on the first to attain net-gain energy output. I will have more to say on this later, but here are some introductory words.
It's a knockout competition. In the early days, some companies could get by with vague promises, blaming changes outside their control for not achieving objectives. As the market advances, those who are using excuses get weeded out. Those who aren't hard-working fall behind. Aggression counts too, but only when it's got to the final few rounds.
The vision to becoming a worldwide supplier is more than vision. It means anticipating customers, rather than just proving the capability to make an engineering marvel. If done properly, it's not so much making it happen, but with proper effort, letting it happen.
The Seemingly Likely Big Parent Option
Except for China and Mitsubishi, none of these 4o fusion companies show any capability of building thousands of fusion power plants, either in facilitating the lengthy approval of their construction, or in supporting a supply chain without single points of failure, let alone coping with the anti-monopolization lawsuits that are bound to appear when one is actually successful. If all these companies just continue to try to prove themselves technically superior, rather than working with others towards actual realistic goals, then some parent companies like Rolls Royce and General Electric will have to take over.