Nuclear Fusion and Climate Change: 'We Need Every Technology We Can Get'

Nuclear fusion might be one of the most valuable tools humans will develop to battle climate change—but will we all be underwater by the time it gets here?

There is no question that the next few years are critical. In April, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said that in order to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, greenhouse gas emissions must peak before 2025 at the latest before being roughly halved by 2030.

There is nothing magical about 1.5 degrees—the climate crisis doesn't start there because it's already here, nor does it signal the immediate end of the world—but it's a general indicator of where many climate change impacts can start to reach catastrophic levels with storms, heat waves and droughts becoming more extreme, putting millions more at risk with potentially life-threatening conditions.

Air pollution
A file photo of steam or smoke being released from industrial chimneys. Unlike fossil fuel power plants, a nuclear fusion power plant would not produce greenhouse gas emissions. Максим Шмаков/Getty

Transferring our reliance from fossil fuels to renewable and clean forms of energy will be the key to limiting climate change.

Nuclear fusion refers to the process of fusing atomic nuclei together under intense heat and pressure. This produces a single nucleus that's not quite as heavy as the combined mass of the two nuclei when they were separate, and this spare mass is released as energy.

Various approaches to fusion have been tackled by scientists for several decades, from giant donut-shaped machines called tokamaks, which use magnets to steer plasma in a circle, to lasers that compress fuel at around 250 miles per second, producing temperatures seen at the core of stars.

Developments in this field often spark excitement because the process has numerous benefits. It's carbon-free; its fuel sources—deuterium and tritium, usually—are generally considered abundant or producible; it's highly energy efficient, with as much potential energy in one kilogram of fusion fuel as in 10 million kilograms of fossil fuel; and there is no radioactive waste by-product apart from reactor components.

But to date, no viable approach has produced a net energy gain—more energy out than in. Physicists have also struggled to maintain reactions as heat tends to want to escape.

According to the Fusion Industry Association's 2022 Fusion Companies Survey, this year has seen a surge in investment in private fusion companies, "more than doubling the industry's entire historic investment in a single year." Most nuclear fusion companies think fusion power will be on the grid at some point in the 2030s, leaning towards the first half of the decade.

Great—but with renewables like solar and wind already ramped up to fend off the 1.5 degree deadline and greenhouse gas emissions hopefully slashed in half by 2030, what will be the point?

Nick Hawker, CEO of First Light Fusion, a kinetic inertial fusion company based in Oxford, England, told Newsweek that its models of future energy show even building solar and wind at the maximum possible rate would leave a residual need for a clean, baseload electricity that would not be met. In short, something else is needed.

"We can't be waiting," he said. "We need to be building alternative sources at the maximum possible rate.

"Solar and wind are the cheapest forms of electricity. But by the time you're trying to address the last 10 percent of electricity production they're not the cheapest because there's a large premium that needs to be added for managing intermittency. So there's still a lot to do there."

Michl Binderbauer, CEO of California-based fusion power company TAE Technologies, echoed the point.

"We know that we can do some impact positively with renewables, no question. But we also know that they can't do 100 percent," he told Newsweek. "Renewables are wonderful when wind blows or sun shines, and then otherwise, it's trouble. And I think that's where you need an asset, the generation asset that fills that gap."

For Hawker, the issue lies not just in solving climate change—if it were, and we could turn on enough solar and wind power to meet all our needs tomorrow—the world "probably wouldn't need fusion."

"But we can't," he added. "It takes time to build supply chains, and so on. Maybe if we had a full COVID-level response, like 'you must give the government your car now, because you're not allowed to drive anymore, and we're gonna melt it down for the steel to make wind turbines,' then we might be able to get to what we need to, but we're not going to do that. Society is not going to accept it.

"It's not actually just about solving climate change. It's about solving climate change whilst maintaining people's living standards. And that's why we need every technology we can get."

'Not the Golden Bullet'

Hawker thinks First Light Fusion can have its projectile-based fusion reactor—which produces fusion by kinetic force—on the grid and making a difference to climate change by the 2040s.

"But it's not the golden bullet," he said. "It's one of the reasons why we can't afford to wait with the other stuff."

L: The Sun R: Smoke or steam
Left: A stock illustration of a close-up view of the sun. Right: Smoke or steam rising from an industrial facility. Nuclear fusion—the same process that powers our sun and other stars—will be a source of clean energy once scientists develop a working reactor. Getty/solarseven/NirutiStock

Binderbauer anticipates that TAE Technology should be able to commercialize fusion some time in the 2030s.

"What ideally happens is we maximize solar and wind as soon as we can in areas where it makes sense, and we have to operate on improving efficiencies on the grid so we reduce the need for new power plants, or can turn some off today that are very polluting," he said. "And hopefully, very quickly, you're ramping fusion. And if we have, at the end of the decade, the proof in the pudding—if it works—then it's a race to deploy at scale."

A key point is that once fusion power is viable and on the grid, Binderbauer doesn't think it will be the sole provider of all our energy needs. At least, not in a realistic time frame.

"What I think happens is that at some point, for sure, you're going to be in the 20 to 25 percent [range] of total generation capacity," he said.

"Would policymakers in 2100 decide we're going to deploy more than 20 percent fusion? Maybe to 80 percent? I don't know, but it's certainly feasible. I think 20 to 30 percent would be filling the gap, if the world works mostly off renewables—and beyond that, you know, we'll have to see."

Update, 10/17/22, 6:18 a.m. ET: This article was updated with an additional image.