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Can start-ups fast-track fusion energy?

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2021-08-17 13:00:06

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To help the world reach net-zero emissions by 2050, Nick Hawker is betting on nuclear fusion. Co-founder of the start-up First Light Fusion, he says: “We need to be building plants, multiple, in the 2040s. And the first of a kind has to be built in the 2030s. Which means the physics problem has to be solved in the 2020s.” This pressure is the subject of The Star Builders — a book about those trying to harness the phenomenon that powers the Sun, as a source of almost limitless energy.

For decades, the quest for fusion power was a story of two government-funded pathways, culminating in mega projects: the US National Ignition Facility (NIF) and the international ITER collaboration, under construction in France. This history was detailed in Daniel Clery’s book A Piece of the Sun in 2013. Back then, some fusion start-up companies existed, but they weren’t taken seriously.

Times have changed, technologies have changed and the stakes have changed. With global temperature rises now bringing floods and fires to every door, the need for emissions-free energy production has never been clearer. Arthur Turrell takes a good look at some of the 25 or so private fusion companies pushing towards commercialization, and appraises them alongside the public projects. Be it University of Oxford spin-off First Light Fusion in Yarnton, UK, smashing a projectile from a rail gun into a target, or Jeff Bezos-backed General Fusion in Burnaby, Canada, compressing magnetized plasma with pistons, he shows how private companies with different ideas, new kit and an eye on the bottom line are re-energizing the field.

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