Both the U.S. and China are investing in nuclear fusion, and expecting results. Fusion’s unresolved engineering challenges (getting more power out than you have to put in) must be overcome first. If achieved, it offers the prospect of an almost inexhaustible source of energy. As Dan Yurman explains, this month the U.S. passed a bill that includes $2.8bn for fusion energy-related projects and research. The U.S. Fusion Industry Association said that figure still isn’t enough and will result in missed opportunities and the initiative shifting to other countries. Like China, where two tranches of $900m are supporting the development of an Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak. The device has achieved world records for maintaining plasma temperatures. Timescales are long, with 30 years from construction of the first plant to commercial operation. But the goal should be worth the wait.
On September 9, 2021 the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology passed legislation that would invest in new scientific infrastructure, new clean energy research initiatives, and new innovative demonstration programs. Fusion energy research and development featured strongly in the Committee’s legislation, and there was discussion about fusion’s importance during the markup.
This legislation provides landmark investments into fusion energy over the next decade. In total, the House Science Committee bill includes $2.8 billion for Fusion Energy-related projects and research, including:
- $1.325B for U.S. Contributions to ITER
- $212.3M for the Matter in Extreme Conditions Upgrade at SLAC
- $59.2M for the Material Plasma Exposure Experiment
- $250M for Fusion Materials Research and Development
- $140M for Inertial Fusion Research and Development
- $275M for Alternative and Enabling Fusion Energy Concepts
- $325M for the Milestone-Based Fusion Energy Development Program
- $250M for Fusion Reactor System Design
Of particular interest is the addition of $325 million for a public-private partnership program, passed in law as a “Milestone-Based Fusion Energy Development Program” that directs the Secretary of Energy to develop a performance-based cost share program to support the development of fusion energy in the United States.
According to the legislative language, “The purpose of the program shall be to support the development of a U.S.-based fusion power industry through the research and development of technologies that will enable the construction of new full-scale fusion systems capable of demonstrating significant improvements in the performance of such systems within 10 years of the enactment of this section.”
The Fusion Industry Association (FIA) said in a press statement that its members are pleased to see this new investment into fusion energy in the United States. However, FIA also noted that its analysis indicates that the fusion industry could support a program of $1 billion, not $325 million.
FIA added that “a reduced-sized program will only result in missed opportunities for scientific advances, reduced private investment, and the loss of projects to overseas competitors.”
China’s fusion energy programs
China is growing as a hub for active fusion research, as its scientists and entrepreneurs are making significant investments in fusion energy. China has two main fusion enterprises driving scientific advances and investment: the government-funded research based at the Institute of Plasma Physics at the Hefei Institute of Physical Science and the privately-funded fusion research of ENN Group.
In Hefei, government-funded scientists operate the recently-upgraded Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (EAST). The machine is government-funded, through the National Nuclear Corporation, a large state-owned corporation. It cost nearly USD$900 million to build and operate through 2019. Since then, the government has been investing large sums of money into development with there recently being awarded a second tranche of another US$900 million in funding for the project.
In the past year, the EAST device has achieved world records, maintaining a plasma temperature of 120 million degrees Celsius for 101 seconds and 160 million Celsius for 20 seconds. These achievements should be seen as a huge success for a fusion device and show the scientific prowess of China’s research teams.
The project is attracting attention among Chinese cities which hope to host construction for the first of a kind facility. At least three Chinese cities are vying to host the world’s first experimental nuclear fusion power station after the country’s government threw its weight behind the ambitious project.
The central government’s imprimatur has now taken it on to the next stage – drawing up the engineering blueprints. Shanghai, mainland China’s financial hub, has been joined by Hefei, the capital of Anhui province, and Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, in the race to win the lucrative project, which, according to some estimates, could cost more than 100 billion yuan (USD$15.2 billion).
Dan Yurman is the author of Neutron Bytes and writes on nuclear matters
This article is published with permission