Although the largest slice of fusion R&D funding is concentrated on the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) in France, private-sector investment is also growing rapidly.

More than 15 fusion-energy start-ups have been created since 2009, including Tokamak Energy and First Light Fusion in the UK. The New York Times recently reported that total private investment in fusion is approaching $2bn. Globally, interest in fusion energy is growing.

The British government has recently announced a £220m investment in the conceptual design of a fusion power station – the Spherical Tokamak for Energy Production.

Fusion engineering company Assystem commissioned the IMechE’s Engineering Policy Unit to investigate the sector’s current state and future prospects and produce a report. Fusion Energy: A Global Effort, a UK Opportunity examines the path to commercialisation, including the role for fusion in future energy systems, the cost drivers and potential for cost reduction, and the technical and non-technical challenges to developing fusion plants.

Fusion’s potential

Although start-up companies are attempting to accelerate the development of commercial fusion power, it is unlikely to make a substantial contribution to the global energy system until the 2040s at the earliest. The need for fusion must therefore be evaluated according to the energy market 20 or 30 years in the future, rather than that of today.

Solar and wind will likely dominate electricity systems, but there will also be a demand for low-carbon dispatchable electricity to complement variable renewables and to prevent excessive system costs, which rise supralinearly with an increasing level of intermittent renewable penetration.

Fusion will therefore compete in a market that includes clean technologies such as: nuclear fission, hydro, bioenergy, geothermal, solar power, marine energy, and large-scale energy storage. With mid-century global energy demand projected to be expanding and increasingly electrified, this market will be very large.

Fusion could also be complementary to nuclear fission as it may be able to serve countries that, owing to public/political opposition, will not use fission.

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