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Adding to the energy mix: Fusion breakthroughs lead to new options 

April 12, 2024 Work Area: Fusion

The market pull for commercial fusion energy is growing rapidly, and investors have taken notice. Since 2020, the private sector invested over $6 billion in fusion technology development. Most of this investment focused on U.S. fusion companies, but efforts in the United Kingdom, Canada, Germany, Japan, and elsewhere continue to gain momentum. Fusion companies are now building several large experimental facilities to demonstrate proof-of-concept for several different types of fusion power plants before the decade’s end. 

Some of the major breakthroughs in recent years drive this forward motion in the sector: 

  • A privately-funded American fusion company demonstrated its prototype 20-tesla high-temperature-superconducting magnet, opening up an exciting new high-field, compact approach to commercial fusion energy; 
  • ITER, the largest international fusion effort, received its first central-solenoid magnet, signaling the availability of fusion-scale manufacturing capabilities. 
  • The Joint European Torus (JET) in the UK doubled its 24-year-old record with a five-second, high-power pulse, limited only by the experimental hardware and not the plasma stability; 
  • Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s (LLNL) National Ignition Facility in California achieved an energy yield eight times higher than its previous record. It reached the cusp of ignition; providing a second fusion approach with similar physics performance as the tokamak; and 
  • China’s Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (EAST) sustained fusion reactions for 17 minutes at 126 million degrees Fahrenheit – five times hotter than the sun. 

As a result of these developments and others, scientific advisory groups such as the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Fusion Energy Sciences Advisory Committee and the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) agree that now is the time to accelerate efforts to bring fusion to the electricity grid. 

A chronological breakdown of fusion energy’s progress over the past decade: 

YearFusion Energy Progress
2013On 13 March 2013, ITER receives notification its building permit is granted for the construction of the world’s largest fusion experiment by 35 partnering countries 
2013Lawrence Livermore National Lab’s (LNNL) National Ignition Facility in California achieves energy output greater than kinetic energy of imploding shell 
2015U.S. DOE releases ARPA-E ALPHA program, funding projects to aid in the creation and demonstration of tools to develop lower-cost pathways to plasma heating and assembly 
2015TAE achieves 5 milliseconds of stable plasma using its C-2 system 
2015ARC design published by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) group 
2016Germany’s Wendelstein produces its first hydrogen plasma 
2016MIT’s Alcator C-Mod breaks world record for plasma pressure in its final experiment, reaching 2.05 atmospheres 
2017Canada-based General Fusion scales its plasma to demonstration size with new machine (PI3)  
2017Germany’s Wendelstein achieves stellarator world record for fusion product 
2018Commonwealth Fusion Systems is founded by veterans of MIT Plasma Science and Fusion Center 
2018Tokamak Energy achieves results comparable to previous publicly-funded spherical tokamaks (15 million degrees Celsius) with ST40 system 
2018China’s EAST tokamak achieves 100 million degrees Celsius, six times hotter than the sun 
2019United Kingdom announces Spherical Tokamak for Energy Production (STEP) program to design a fusion facility before 2050
2020Japan’s JT60-SA becomes world’s largest tokamak with upgrades 
2021LLNL’s National Ignition Facility achieves a significant milestone in fusion research with a fusion yield surpassing 1.3 MJ
2021China’s EAST tokamak sustains plasma for 17 minutes, 36 seconds at 70 million degrees Celsius, a new world record for prolonged high temperatures
2022The Joint European Torus in the United Kingdom produces 59 megajoules produced with fusion for over five seconds, doubling its 1997 record 
2022The United Kingdom’s Taskforce on Regulatory Innovation (TIGRR), concludes that future fusion energy facilities will be regulated under the legal framework already in place for fusion science facilities.  
2022In August, an experiment at the National Ignition Facility achieved a yield of more than 1.3 megajoules. In December, the National Ignition Facility performed a nuclear fusion experiment that released more energy than was applied to it.  
2023Wendelstein 7-X maintains hot plasms for eight minutes, setting new record

Scientific announcements complement a range of activities by private sector fusion companies. Investor-funded efforts are pushing for faster deployment of commercial designs – and attracting major investment to do so. CATF will continue tracking progress in this important area of clean energy development.  

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