Nuclear fusion energy remains vague or unknown to the general public for many years. Despite being the possible solution to mankind’s energy crisis via a fairly safe and waste-free electricity generation process, its research appears to be never-ending and a few witnesses predict that it will take another 20 years for the technology to be commercially available. Well, the same has happened for the past 50 years.
Still, the potential nuclear fusion power seems to guarantee has drawn numerous personnel and corporations to find ways to manipulate its commercial prospects. Can fusion energy live up to its promises?
The Potential of Fusion Energy
It is an undeniable fact that nuclear fusion is a notably promising source for future commercial energy. Since the 1950s, scientists have been trying to sustain fusion reactions to produce energy. The development of fusion power has come a long way and has been greatly improved, but the majority of scientists believe that commercial fusion energy is still a few decades away.
In an attempt to speed up the estimated time to complete this research, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) was launched. ITER is a project functioning under a joint partnership between the European Union, Japan, China, India, Korea, Russia and the U.S. to research and develop the scientific and technical potential of fusion energy. It aims to prove that large-scale fusion reactions are possible, and that it can be sustained with the concept of “tokamak”. Other than ITER, various reactor designs exist to fuel similar scientific experiments such as NIF and the Sustained Spheromak Physics Experiment.
If fusion energy is successfully produced on a commercial scale, the promises it upholds look rather unbelievable. Tritium is used in nuclear fusion. Regardless of its rarity in nature, it can be mass-produced in nuclear reactors by enclosing the plasma in a breeder blanket of lithium or other chemical elements to trigger neutron reactions. Upon its creation, tritium will be extracted and reprocessed as nuclear fusion fuel. Actually, the production of tritium exceeds the utilization, hence providing sufficient energy source for the reactor. Helium, an inactive and nontoxic chemical, is the waste product of nuclear fusion.
Theoretically, fusion energy does not post radiation threat, as the plasma will immediately vanish if the reaction process has gone awry, thus preventing nuclear leaks. Fusion energy seems to be the perfect energy source – uncontaminated, recyclable, self-sustaining and somewhat, rather safe. Yet, a great deal of hard work has been dedicated to its slightest development.
Disappointing results emerge in attempts to produce, sustain and manage the plasma due to the remarkably high temperature that most conventional substances find difficult to endure. This is just one of the various technical and scientific snags scientists need to solve. Seeing the complexities of generating fusion energy, the research process of this technology is relatively unending for the past decades. However, the few significant discoveries that fusion energy research has managed to dig up must not be swept under the rug.
Scientists worldwide are now on the race to unravel the problems stopping the advancement of fusion energy, resulting in opposing proposals and concepts regarding the reactor’s design to emerge from different countries of which each believes theirs to be the best. Nevertheless, all claims are expected to be put through several trials and tests before experts from the fusion energy research field can come to a common agreement. Another note to add, most reactors’ blueprints are most likely not finalized. Important edits will be made every now and then to enhance the constructions’ gears and substances.
Needless to say, it may take a few other decades for the main construction principles to be written black and white in a “book of fusion energy reactor design standards”.
Non-technical factors, for instance, financial support, politics, public awareness, economic status, other means of power generation, etc. play a vital part in the advancement of fusion power too. Large funding and industrial dedication to push the advancement of fusion energy could be possible as existing fossil fuel extraction is costly and not environmental friendly. On the contrary, other forms of energy revolution or an improvement in energy competence and maintenance that leads to a reduction in energy use could turn previous research efforts to waste.
Moreover, political dispute between countries involved in joint projects like ITER could put all past achievements in ruins. Comparing the financial support other fields receive, the endowment for fusion energy is rather low – the U.S. government spends roughly $250 million each year in this field. Although the long-term funding of ITER is quite eminent, other research sites are facing financial difficulties, and this may jeopardize the evolution of fusion energy.
The year 2040 is declared as the earliest possible timeframe for fusion energy to be commercialized for consumers. High-income corporations stand a comparatively better chance in this market as they are able to fund the research and development of a technology that needs years to gain major profits.
The Fusion Market
With its significantly slow research process that is estimated to finish in no less than 30 years and with hardly any profitable gains in between, some may wonder, could the fusion market even prosper?
Two potential marketing approaches can be pondered upon to enhance the opportunities hidden in the fusion industry. The investing companies could either wait to gain profits when fusion energy is successfully commercialized, or turn the field of fusion research into money-making opportunities.
Clearly, the long-term strategy is more advisable for patient companies with a steady income flow. A private company named General Fusion, for instance, is endowed with a venture capital of $22 million to fund its research on a fusion reactor’s design. Although its main business requires a relatively long period to bloom and is rather volatile, General Fusion was dubbed by Venture Capital Journal as one of the “20 Most Promising Startups” in 2010.
The latter strategy steers commercial opportunities to the fusion research industry. As stated earlier, the development of fusion energy opens the door to vast possibilities. Theories irrespective of their nature are being studied – from the reactors’ design, to machineries like the heat exchanger and breeder blanket, to the enhancement of elements to endure the extraordinary high temperatures in reactors. Billions are spent by governments worldwide on fusion research, providing smaller and less ambitious companies with a chance for immediate revenue.
The research market is most likely not exposed to equal intensity as comparatively more recognized markets. Assuming you have discovered a plasma-facing component believed to be perfect for nuclear fusion reactors; experiments and trials will still be conducted extensively on other potential components to determine the final option even though you claim yours is better. After the most supreme component is identified and perhaps extensively used, its yearly funding might not stay the same as trials and tests are conducted frequently on new materials. The fusion research market is rather complicated, particularly for the equipments created solely for this field as it is impossible to utilize them for other purposes and markets, thus reducing potential leverage.
Computer modeling and simulation are seen as another commercial opportunity offered by fusion research market. Only a few large-scale experiments have been carried out so far as plasma research is costly, extremely complicated and relatively hazardous. Proposals to perform such experiments are mostly rejected. Hence, fewer financially stable companies can resolve to computer modeling and simulation as a cheaper alternative to develop theories at an early stage by collecting simulation data to evaluate the advantages of the new ideas.
Marketing opportunities not only lie in high-end developments of commercial fusion energy, but in the less significant research field as well. The most satisfying return, however, may not come in the form of actual revenues, but in abstract fulfillment for being a part in unveiling the mystery of fusion energy and developing it to its full potential.