While nuclear fusion shows promise from a technical standpoint, its economic feasibility is a more intricate matter

We often refer to nuclear fusion as the “energetic grail,” as it aims to recreate and control the same reaction that powers the Sun, potentially providing virtually infinite and clean electricity on Earth.

Nuclear fusion has gained popularity and attracted significant investment through state and international projects like the international thermonuclear experimental reactor ITER in the south of France, as well as numerous global start-ups with ambitious promises of limitless energy in various forms and through various methods. Encouragingly, some initial results are already showing promise.

The question of whether all the efforts being invested in nuclear fusion are truly worth it is a longstanding debate in the scientific community. Many researchers are skeptical about the technical feasibility of fusion ever reaching the level of maturity required to fulfill humanity’s hopes for this “holy grail” of energy production.

Jacob Schwartz, a physicist from Princeton University
Jacob Schwartz, a physicist from Princeton University

The economic aspect of nuclear fusion also needs to be considered when evaluating its worth. Even if fusion becomes a reality and arrives in time to address pressing global energy needs, it will enter a market that is already crowded with various energy sources. Careful calculations will need to be made to determine the true value of incorporating fusion into our energy mixes, considering factors such as cost, scalability, and sustainability, before it can be deemed a viable solution.

As highlighted in a report by Wired, Jacob Schwartz, a physicist from Princeton University, recently attempted to tackle the challenging question of how nuclear fusion could compete economically with the significant gains made by renewable energy sources. He published his findings in the journal Joule, sharing his approach and insights on this complex issue. Schwartz acknowledged the remarkable progress of renewables and sought to understand how fusion could potentially be economically viable in comparison.

In collaboration with his team, Schwartz conducted a simulation of the American energy grid spanning from 2036 to 2050. Their objective was to determine the economic viability of generating 100 gigawatts of electricity through fusion, which would be sufficient to power approximately 75 million households. This simulation aimed to shed light on the challenges and feasibility of incorporating fusion as a significant energy source in the future energy landscape.

Despite the robustness of the data and models employed, the equation remains complex, and Jacob Schwartz and his team arrived at nuanced conclusions. Their findings indicate that the economic viability of fusion as a significant energy source is contingent upon various factors, including the future advancements in conventional power plants and renewable energy technologies, such as solar and wind power. Additionally, the results are influenced by regional differences across the country, where climatic conditions vary widely from one region to another. This highlights the multifaceted nature of the economic considerations surrounding the integration of fusion into the energy mix.

Scientists have not concluded that once fusion technology is mature, it would outcompete and render all other energy sources obsolete, becoming a new global energy miracle. Instead, their calculations indicate that fusion would likely remain a niche market, similar to nuclear fission today. Its deployment would depend on specific local requirements and the cost of building and maintaining fusion reactors. Fusion may not be universally ubiquitous, but rather tailored to specific locations and circumstances, much like the current status of nuclear fission.

reactor design

Among the various fusion reactor designs, the ARIES-AT model based on the tokamak concept stands out as a preferred option in terms of achieving the “right price” for the energy it produces. This price point would enable fusion to establish a competitive foothold in the market, making it economically viable and attractive for widespread adoption.

As pointed out by Wired, a previous analysis conducted by Samuel Wars and his team arrived at similar conclusions. The rapid advancements in renewable energies and large-scale battery storage technologies have significantly altered the energy landscape, making heavy investments in new fusion reactors potentially costly or unnecessary in many scenarios. The economic viability and practicality of fusion as a widespread energy solution may be challenged by the progress made in renewable energy technologies and storage systems.

The emergence of low-cost mini-reactors has also revived interest in conventional fission as a potential player in the future energy mix. If fission can overcome its current challenges, it could regain significant economic viability. However, proponents of fusion technologies still maintain that their solutions, whether based on tokamak or inertial confinement principles, remain valid. The competition between fusion and fission technologies continues to evolve, and the future of energy generation will likely depend on a complex interplay of technological advancements, economic factors, and market dynamics.

As per experts interviewed by Wired, the costs associated with building fusion reactors are projected to decrease in the foreseeable future as advancements in various technologies continue to progress. Furthermore, the fuel used in fusion reactors is inherently almost free and does not entail expensive post-treatment or storage requirements, unlike uranium used in conventional fission reactors, for instance. These factors could potentially improve the economic viability of fusion as an energy source in the long run.

Nicholas Hawker, a patron of First Light Fusion, acknowledges that achieving the energy “grail” of fusion is not an overnight feat and will require time and effort. However, he expresses his satisfaction that numerous organizations are actively exploring diverse solutions, thereby increasing the likelihood that one of them will succeed both technically and commercially. This multiplicity of efforts and approaches offers optimism for the future of fusion energy.