Six smaller and newer private start-ups are exploring alternative ways to achieve the same goal, and several promising start-ups hope to have demonstration reactors up and running within this decade. The frontrunners are Massachusetts-based Commonwealth Fusion Systems and Vancouver-based Canadian-UK partner General Fusion.
Lockheed Martin’s “Skunk Works” is also still in the game, gradually developing more advanced compact fusion reactor models at a rate of one every two years. Either way, the job will be done.
The long-term prospects for fusion energy are dizzying. It effectively provides unlimited energy from an inexhaustible source of fuel: hydrogen isotopes extracted from water (deuterium) and concentrated lithium (tritium). The process doesn’t cause melting, doesn’t create radioactive waste, and doesn’t take up much land.
Once nuclear fusion can generate large amounts of electricity at an affordable price, we can stop burning fossil fuels altogether. Unless there are further significant improvements in battery weight and storage capacity, we may need hydrogen to make airplanes and ships, but you can just split water into hydrogen using abundant electricity. Wind and solar are likely to remain cost competitive.
So what’s not to like about Fusion? Only delivery date. It is extremely unlikely that even a prototype fusion reactor will generate commercially relevant electricity before 2030. Greenhouse gas emissions may have stopped rising by then, but they probably won’t fall just yet.
As a result, current projections suggest that we will be irreversibly committed to increasing the global average temperature by more than 1.5 degrees by 2029.
By 2040, if we’re lucky, we might see the massive deployment of fusion power plants, accounting for 5% of global energy use, but any faster pace would require incredible changes in how the world works. By then, if some big feedback kicks in, we’ll see a 2+ degree uptick – or already experience it.
If our civilization doesn’t collapse in the next 20 to 30 years, fusion energy may give us a long, happy future, but it won’t be the magic tool to get us through the crisis. We have to figure it out ourselves.
Gwynne Dyer is a historian and journalist based in London.his latest book is shortest war history.
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