We have seen recently across the news the exciting breakthrough made by scientists at the Joint European Torus (JET) near Oxford, UK. They announced on 9th February that they had generated the highest-ever sustained energy from fusing together atoms, more than doubling their own record from experiments accomplished in 1997. The record-breaking run occurred on the last day of a five-month operation from which scientists gathered a wealth of information to be analysed over the coming years.
Nuclear fusion powers the sun and all of the stars of the universe. To harness fusion energy on earth would provide a virtually limitless amount of renewable energy that could supply the needs of the vastly growing global population. This is the main goal of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) in southern France that asserts itself to be a key research centre with the aim of providing future fusion power.
Fusion is powerful, occurring when the nuclei of small atoms stick together, fusing to create a new element and releasing energy. The most common method is two hydrogen atoms fusing to create helium. Fusion generates so much energy because the new element weighs a drop less than the sum of its parts. Humans have been able to trigger fusion but in uncontrollable ways, such as in thermonuclear weapons (hydrogen bombs). Fusion has also been undertaken in laboratories, but in conditions that require far more energy than the reaction produces. To make fusion beneficial, scientists need to trigger it in a controlled way that yields far more energy than they put in. Around the world people are researching different ways to achieve this.
Fusion energy has often been viewed as a remote possibility because to construct a fusion reactor is in essence to create an artificial star. For a century scientists have been studying the physics of fusion and for decades working on utilising the process. For a long time, fusion energy was considered a vision that is forever years away, but now nuclear fusion appears to be finally approaching commercial possibility. Globally, there are now more than 30 private fusion firms according to an October survey by the Fusion Industry Association (FIA). Eighteen firms have said they have attained funding of more than $2.4 billion in total from almost entirely private investments.
Despite the hurdles to overcome, the colossal potential of fusion makes it unwise to ignore. Fusion energy would be technology that could safely produce a vast and secure flow of electricity by harnessing abundant fuel (made from seawater), to create the same reaction that powers the sun. Importantly it achieves this whilst producing no greenhouse gases and minimal waste compared to conventional energy sources. With the climate crisis looming and all the efforts and pledges made at COP26, fusion energy would be a clean source of energy necessary to enable the world to move away from fossil fuels and thus cutting greenhouse gas emissions. Global average temperatures are rising, and energy demands are also growing, this makes the quest for fusion timelier than ever, as it could solve both problems concurrently.
We are not at the point today that these technologies can immediately resolve the complex difficulty of the increasing need for more energy, with the desperate need to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. But the catastrophic concern of climate change is a significant call for investing in extensive energy solutions, and fusion may be the technology with the highest upside. Therefore, with more investment from governments and the private sector, scientists could accelerate the pace of progress, and experiment with even wider approaches to fusion. So, for the sustainable investor with existing exposure to the quest for clean energy, nuclear fusion, and the opportunities it will yield, is something to be optimistic about.