Nuclear Fusion is a hot topic right now with big players like google, Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos becoming big investors into the technology. It is a difficult topic to get your head around and with genius' like these involved it is only going to become a more complex minefield. We have tried to de-mystify and give a good overview below:
Nuclear Fusion versus Nuclear Fission
Okay we understand if you are not familiar with either of the terms but keeping things very simple Nuclear Fission is what happens inside of a nuclear reactor and Nuclear Fusion is what happens in the Sun. Both produce heat in different ways.
To differentiate the two it is useful to understand the fission is another work for splitting and fusion is obviously linked to the word fuse. Fission involves the splitting of a nucleus (uranium or plutonium) when they are hit by a neutron. In comparison, Fusion involves the joining of two nuclei to make a larger nucleus. Both result in the production of carbon free heat which can be used to generate electricity - the big advantage of fusion being the radioactive waste produced from the process is short lived, quickly decaying to undetectable levels.
The video below is from the fantastic people at Doodle Science and explains the processes in a very simple manner.
For a more detailed, but sensible, explanation of the science check out the BBC GCSE Bitesize web pages dedicated to nuclear fission and fusion.
The Race to get Nuclear Fusion off the ground
As discuss above nuclear fusion requires the forging of elements together. this process is not as simple as it sounds requiring extreme temperature of hundreds of millions of degree. So far every fusion experiment that has taken place has result in an energy deficit (i.e. more energy goes into creating the reaction than that which is produced as part of the process). This means that the promise of carbon-free energy remains elusive so far.
Due to the challenge itself and the potential impact that making nuclear fusion a viable energy source has there has been no doubt very keen interest from the great and the good. Below are a couple of the forerunner in the Race to Fusion.
Commonwealth Fusion Systems - a collaboration between MIT and Italian Company, Eni. They are claiming to put fusion power on the grid within 15 years and are planning an experienment called Sparc. They are aiming to do this by using super powerful magnets to 'squeeze' the hydrogen atoms together and create heat in the reaction.
General Fusion - founded in 2002 by Dr. Michel Laberge. The company has so far raised over $100m from multiple investors including Bezos Expeditions, the investment fund of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. As such General Fusion has built a world-class Magnetized Target Fusion research and development team and aims to "to bring fusion power to the grid decades sooner." It is difficult to argue with them considering their agility, efficiency and deep pockets.
Helion Energy - having developed The Fusion Engine which is truck-sized and can power the grid. Founded in 2013 and after using $5m of funding from the Department of Energy to prove the technology is wasn't long before investors started to provide private backing. These investors included Peter Thiel who is the multi-billion dollar co-founder of PayPal. It isn't any doubt with projects of a $300 billion over 20 years.
TAE Technologies (previously Tri Alpha Energy) - was founded in 1998 but operated in pretty much stealth model until 2015. Backed by private backers including Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and has Google as a shareholder. TAE Technologies stated their goal as finding "a commercially competitive fusion power plant".
ITER - kicked off with a handshake between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985. ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor) is being designed and built to produce, maintain and study the plasmas required for future fusion power generation. In southern France, 35 nations are collaborating to build the world's largest tokamak. ITER aims to be the first fusion device to produce net energy with first plasma scheduled for 2025.
Tokamak Energy - formed in 2009 to design and develop small spherical tokamaks to produce neutrons to be used in scientific experiments but from 2012 has embarked the race to fusion due to the emergence of high temperature superconductor materials. Tokamak Energy expects to deliver electricity into the grid by 2030. A privately funded company born out of the Culham Laboratory.
Culham Centre for Fusion Energy (CCFE) - the UK's national laboratory for nuclear fusion, based on the Culham Science Centre and owned and operated by the UKAEA (UK Atomic Energy Authority). It's nuclear fusion programme is centre around MAST (Mega Amp Spherical Tokamak) and is currently funded under EURATOM. Also housing JET (Joint European Torus) the worlds largest magnetic fusion experiment and has recently had £86m of investment for a new National Fusion Technology Platform to open in 2020 as part of the ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor). It is reported that the new facilities will help to secure around £1 billion in contracts from ITER and other global fusion projects. Looking further ahead, they will enable UKAEA to develop technology for the first nuclear fusion power plants and put UK industry in a strong position to exploit the commercialisation of this highly promising low-carbon energy source.