For decades, the answer to when fusion energy would come was like the punch line to an oft-repeated joke – it was always 10 or 20 years away. Now it may be on the cusp of commercialization.
If that chorus sounds all too familiar, it’s because, well, something like that was written 10 years ago. Fusion research has been simmering for decades. But now it’s reaching a boiling point and there’s plenty of evidence to suggest this time will be different.
For a field that has existed for more than 60 years, a lot has happened in the field of fusion research in the past six months. Researchers have set new records for how long they can contain the superheated plasma that requires fusion. Magnets to contain those plasmas have become stronger and more efficient. As a result, the power produced by each fusion experiment has steadily increased, creeping closer to the point where the reactors produce more power than they consume, the so-called break-even point.
“The reason to be excited about fusion now is the same reason to be excited about computers in the 1940s, when someone invented the transistor.” Pioneering Energy Ventures Partner Phil Larochelle
It’s as if fusion research was a race, but the various groups that entered were unsure where they were on the track. Suddenly they all saw the finish line: reactors that produced as much energy as they consumed.
Buoyed by those results, investors are betting large amounts of money that fusion will soon drive the ghosts of the past: Fusion startups have raised $2.7 billion in the past year alone, according to a londonbusinessblog.com analysis of PitchBook data.
Such a sudden burst of progress across a number of different approaches may seem implausible at first glance. At the very least, it goes against the popular tale of the lone genius making an important discovery that solves the problem once and for all. But it suggests that the time of fusion energy has arrived.
“Are we at an inflection point in fusion?” said Eric Toone, technical leader of the investment committee at Pioneering Energy Companies. “We absolutely believe that.”
Breakthrough is one of the few investors who have placed hefty bets on fusion energy becoming a reality. Breakthrough, started by Bill Gates, joined a $1.8 billion Series B for Commonwealth Fusion Systems the third investment in the startup last year. (Gates personally entered that round as well.) Chevron and Google led a $250 million Series G in July for TAE systemswhich has been in existence since 1998. Helion Energy raised $500 million last year, led by Sam Altman. Zap Energy closed a $160 million round earlier this year.
That is a lot of money on an as yet unproven technology. Fusion power is not destined, of course – humanity is not destined to master the power of the sun. But the recent momentum created by three technological advances suggests we’re closer than ever. And that frenzy can be explained by a concept from a completely different field: evolutionary biology.