Investment in fusion energy is about to go mainstream, according to the lead fusion coordinator for the U.S. Department of Energy.
“As the technology continues to mature, there will be a point where private investors feel that they must be invested in fusion, and I feel like we’re starting to reach that inflection point,” Scott Hsu said Thursday in a webinar hosted by the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine.
Hsu advises DOE leadership on fusion-energy issues, and he coordinates the efforts of all Energy Department offices to promote fusion-energy research, development, and demonstration in partnership with the private sector.
“Whereas earlier on it was regarded as a very high risk kind of activity, at some point later on it will be that everyone’s invested in it. And so, the question is where are we right now, and I do think we’re on an overall growth trend given the macro picture.”
Governments have supported research into fusion for decades, but in 2021 private investment surged past public funding. That year, private investors poured $4.44 billion into a pursuit that had only attracted $1.5. billion over the previous five years, according to a recent assessment by McKinsey & Co.
The more significant development that year, Hsu said, is that both the 3-year and 5-year moving averages for private investment passed the level of public investment.
“Now some of that I think is due to just very specific milestones being reached by certain companies, but I would say there’s a macro trend as well going on.”
That 2021 surge may be a precursor for investments to come if mainstream investors decide to jump into fusion. They are likely to be encouraged by the December breakthrough at DOE’s National Ignition Facility, where for the first time a fusion reaction released more energy (3.15 megajoules) than the laser that ignited it (2.05 megajoules).
All this private investment doesn’t mean, Hsu said, that public investment is no longer needed.
“I want to be clear. There are significant scientific and technical challenges still remaining,” he said. “Robust publicly-funded programs are still very much needed.”
Governments still have to support research into improved power sources for fusion reactors, he said, for materials or processes that can withstand the extreme conditions of fusion plasma, and for a self-sufficient fuel cycle to produce tritium for the reactors.
The most studied fusion reaction merges two isotopes of hydrogen—deuterium and tritium—in a hot plasma where they transform into helium, releasing an extra neutron and a blast of energy. “In a nuclear fusion reactor, the hot, charged gas known as plasma reaches out-of-this-world temperatures at 150 million degrees Celsius, or 10 times hotter than the center of the sun,” according to Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Fusion promises to produce vast amounts of energy from the most abundant element in the universe, with no carbon emissions from the fusion reaction itself.
The recent surge in investment came from investors around the globe, but according to Hsu, about 80 percent of it went to U.S. companies.
Most of those companies are in venture capital stages of development, so main-street investors may have to wait for a crack at them unless they’re willing to settle for investments in the larger companies that have already staked a claim, including such usual suspects as Chevron, Amazon and Alphabet. In a contribution to Forbes, Q.Ai recommends several companies that hold a piece of fusion’s prospects. Josh Enomoto offers a similar take via Yahoo.
In its report, McKinsey notes that 25 companies are pursuing fusion energy, compared to only one at the beginning of this century. It analyzes investments into the following leading companies: TAE Technologies, General Fusion, Commonwealth Fusion Systems, Helion Energy, Zap Energy, Tokamak Energy and First Light Fusion.