UNITED STATES (VOP TODAY NEWS) — The unrealizable dream of physicists all over the world, controlled thermonuclear fusion, is perhaps close to coming true. In any case, these are the expectations of investors from several private companies at once, who have suddenly joined in the pursuit of the “energy grail” of humanity.
“Tamed” nuclear fusion, which would repeat the processes taking place inside the Sun, is able to give the planet an almost inexhaustible source of energy. Moreover, it would be absolutely safe, unlike the decay reaction in nuclear power plants, and completely clean, with zero greenhouse gas emissions. There is only one problem: until recently, “thermonuclear” was the subject of not very successful experiments by scientists.
For a number of reasons, such experiments – not to mention the teams of people who conduct them – require colossal investments, which can only be pulled, and even then together, only by the world’s leading states. Private business, always one way or another oriented to profit, for decades bypassed the “fusion” side: long, expensive, unpromising.
It is all the more curious that recently at least three American private companies: Helion Energy, Commonwealth Fusion Systems and TAE Technologies – announced the attraction of billions of dollars in investments in their own thermonuclear projects. Moreover, they announced commercial returns from them already in 2024, 2025 and 2030, respectively.
What is this, another bait of cunning businessmen who decided to “monetize” the belief of millions of simpletons in scientific progress? Or is it really a sign in front of us that in just a few years the world energy, and with it the whole of humanity, will change beyond recognition?
Light up a star
Let’s figure it out “on our fingers”, without going into physical formulas, what is controlled thermonuclear fusion and why it is still unattainable.
From the very word “synthesis” one can understand that we are talking about a fusion – namely, about the unification of two light atomic nuclei into one heavier nucleus. At the same time, a significant amount of heat is released, which can be adapted to boil water with it, rotate the turbine and give current.
The fuel for such a reaction can be the most common chemical in the universe – hydrogen. The main difficulty is that for the fusion of nuclei (for example, isotopes of hydrogen, deuterium and tritium, which turn into helium), they must be brought together a sufficient distance, overcoming the repulsive force. This can be done only by properly overclocking the nuclei – heating them to the state of plasma. And then keeping this plasma in a stable state.
In essence, it is about lighting a small star on Earth. So far, the best attempt is 101 seconds at 120 million degrees Celsius: this is the result the Chinese achieved a few months ago. This temperature is more than sufficient for the synthesis to become self-sustaining (in the core of the Sun, for comparison, it is 15 million degrees). But less than three minutes of plasma life is, of course, not enough.
First, Soviet scientists, and then their colleagues around the world, came to the conclusion that holding the plasma is most promising with the help of a magnetic field. To do this, they began to build tokamaks – a kind of “magnetic traps” of plasma. The first tokamaks appeared in the USSR, and today there are about 300 of them on the planet.
The most ambitious tokamak project in the world is considered the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) in southeastern France, bringing together scientists and designers from the EU, Russia, the United States, China, India, Japan and South Korea. The reactor is planned to be built by 2025, in order to reach the first “useful result” after a few more years – by transferring 50 MW to the plasma, to obtain 500 MW from it within 400-600 seconds.
This ten-minute pleasure is worth at least 20 billion euros. This is the approximate cost of the efforts of all participating countries, which are building ITER “brick by brick”, each being responsible for its own block. It is not surprising that the project has been dragging on since the mid-1980s, and the commissioning of the reactor has been repeatedly postponed.
SpaceX or Rusnano?
Against this background, news from the American state of Washington looks like a bolt from the blue. Helion Energy, a private company based there, was able to attract $ 500 million in investment and will receive an additional 1.7 billion when the next efficiency threshold is reached.
A few months ago, its Trenta fusion reactor reached a temperature threshold of 100 million degrees – and for the first time this happened with private money. The company’s management says that in just three years it will be able to deliver the first clean positive energy – that is, to receive more megawatts at the output than will be expended at the input.
Similar goals are pursued by two other private firms from the United States – TAE Technologies (California) and Commonwealth Fusion Systems (at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology).
The first of them managed to raise almost $ 1 billion back in April under the announcement that by 2030 its reactors will be able to produce stable plasma at 50 million degrees. The second accumulated even more private funds, $ 1.8 billion, after it was able to demonstrate a new superconducting magnet that creates a magnetic field with a record induction of 20 Tesla. SPARC Commonwealth Fusion Systems plans to complete its tokamak by 2025.
There are at least two points to note here.
All of these projects are not very similar to the “scam” with which the word “startup” has often been associated lately. Behind each of the projects is the work of serious scientists and developers, and most importantly – concrete results. And these are not at all “differently bent corners” of a smartphone, but quite real scientific and technical achievements.
And the second point is connected with money – more precisely, with the names of sponsors. Suffice it to say that Helion Energy was awarded a contract by the US Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA-E) a few years ago, funded by NASA, the Pentagon and the US Department of Energy.
Commonwealth Fusion Systems sponsors include Bill Gates and similar bison. As for TAE Technologies, its funding came mainly through Goldman Sachs, and in 2012 our Rosnanotech invested in it (and Anatoly Chubais even joined the company’s board of directors).
And although the latter consideration will most likely cause skepticism among many, the three named private firms look more like Elon Musk’s SpaceX than a deliberate fraud like Elizabeth Holmes’s Theranos project. And this means that they can succeed.
All this is especially relevant against the background of the tightening of the climate rhetoric on the part of the “collective West” and its obvious, albeit unsuccessful, attempts to develop alternative energy. With a great deal of confidence, we can say that first oil, and then gas on Earth will eventually run out – it is possible that already in the 21st century.
If by that time the “green” technologies are not developed to acceptable efficiency, then the “peaceful atom” will remain the only serious source of light and heat for mankind.
And here, in order not to perish in the world Chernobyl, all serious world players, willy-nilly, will have to light up a small star.
This article is written and prepared by our foreign editors writing for VOP from different countries around the world – edited and published by VOP staff in our newsroom.
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