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24 June 2021

Bezos-backed fusion start-up lines up UK demonstrator in 2025

By Harry Morgan

A Canadian start-up, backed by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, is aiming to demonstrate the UK’s first nuclear fusion plant as early as 2025, in a promising sign for an industry, which has always been ’20-years away.’

General Fusion’s $400 million fusion demonstration plant is being planned for construction near the UK Atomic Energy Authority’s (UKAEA) Culham Centre for Fusion Energy in Oxfordshire – a fusion-science hub home to the Joint European Torus (JET), which is expected to have a large opening of workload capacity once testing starts at the $22 billion International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) in the next four years.

While the ITER project is aiming to establish nuclear fusion technology for reactors of over 1,000 MW each, General Fusion is targeting distributed units of just 115 MW of capacity – aiming to stabilize local grids filled with intermittent solar and wind power. The pilot project will not generate power but will be around 70% of the size of one of these proposed commercial reactors for testing.

Fusion technology was once referred to by physicist Stephen Hawking as  humankind’s most promising technology. For those needing a re-cap on high-school physics, it differs from traditional nuclear technology in that rather than using fission – the process where large uranium atoms are split to release energy – isotopes of hydrogen are fused to form helium and vast amounts of energy, the same reaction that occurs on the sun.

Fusing atoms together in a controlled way releases nearly four times more energy per unit mass than nuclear fission, and four million times more than the chemical reactions from the burning of coal, oil or gas. Just 1 kilogram of fusion fuel can power 10,000 homes for one year and replace 55,000 barrels of oil, 6 million kilograms of natural gas, or 10 million kilograms of coal, according to General Fusion.

However, to overcome the repulsive forces between deuterium and tritium isotopes of hydrogen, a huge amount of pressure and heat is required. At the required high temperatures, no engineering material can survive, so containment is achieved either by magnetic or inertial confinement. Both JET and ITER designs, which were first tested in the Soviet Union, use powerful electromagnets and lasers, arrayed around a supercooled, doughnut-shaped container to hold superheated plasma in place that is used to fuse the atoms.

General Fusion’s reactor adopts a completely different approach. Using a magnetized-target fusion (MTF) reactor, a hydrogen target is compressed and surrounded by a swirling wall of molten metal. Up to 500 synchronized, pneumatic pistons are fired at a rate of between six and sixty times per minute to compress the plasma until the atoms fuse and generate huge quantities of heat energy. Heat from the plasma is then transferred into the molten metal before being channeled through a heat exchanger to produce steam, which then drives a turbine to produce electricity.

The Fusion Demonstration Plant aims to verify that General Fusion’s MTF technology can create fusion conditions in a practical and cost-effective manner at power plant relevant scales. Construction is anticipated to begin in 2022, with operations beginning approximately three years later, hoping to lay the foundations for commercial fusion pilot plants in the early 2030s.

The announcement of the project follows a call in April by the US National Academies of Sciences for the country to accelerate plans to build a pilot fusion reactor capable of generating electricity as soon as 2035.

There are currently between 20 and 30 global start-ups that are trying to reach this milestone, including the likes of TAE Technology and Commonwealth Fusion Systems in the US, with companies like First Light Fusion claiming that the technology could be “grid-ready this decade,” at costs of just $25 per MWh.

Since research surrounding the commercialization of the technology began sixty years ago, the technology has always been ’20 years away,’ according to developers. However, the recent injection of private funding is now a sign that developers’ timelines should be taken more seriously, especially as urgency ramps up to address climate change.

Over 35 countries have contributed to the $22 billion of funding towards the ITER project in France, which has recently experienced delays due to pandemic-enforced disruption to its supply chain, while more than $1.5 billion has been poured into private start-ups in the space.

Jeff Bezos invested in General Fusion more than a decade ago, with the company raising a further $100 million in its most recent round of funding in December 2019. The company is currently preparing for another round of private investment, according to the CEO Chris Mowry, who added that “at some point we’re going to go public.”

“There are a lot of people preparing to take shots on goal right now. We now have the first, best shot, but there are lots of others lining up,” said Mowry. While physicists are currently split over whether small reactors will be cost-efficient compared to larger reactors, there has been widespread acknowledgment that private investors are helping to balance pure research against commercial opportunity, overcoming problems associated with infrastructure demand and radioactivity challenges.

The selection of the UK for the project – along with the availability of the UKAEA facilities – falls in line with Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s recent offering of £12 billion to green industries, including nuclear fusion. At least £220 million of this will be dedicated to the 5-year development phase of the Spherical Tokamak for Energy Production (STEP) project, seeking to operate the country’s first fusion plant based on the ITER design by 2040.

The UK is staring down the barrel of an aging fleet of nuclear fission reactors, with seven plants worth a combined capacity of 9.4 GW all set to be retired by 2035. While projects like Hinckley Point C and Sizewell C aim to offset a significant chunk of this, the UK is also investing in small modular reactors being developed by Rolls Royce, which aim to take a similar distributed approach to nuclear to General Fusion, but using fission technologies instead.