For decades, the The answer to when fusion power would arrive was like the punch line in an oft-repeated joke – it was always 10 or 20 years away. Now, it may indeed be on the verge of commercialization.
If that chorus sounds all too familiar, it’s because, well, it was written 10 years ago. Fusion research has been simmering for decades. But now, it’s coming to a boil, and there’s plenty of evidence to suggest this time will be different.
For a field that has existed for more than 60 years, a lot has happened in fusion research in the last half decade. Researchers have set new records for how long they can contain the superheated plasma required for fusion. The magnets containing these creatures have become stronger and more effective. As a result, the power produced by each fusion experiment has steadily increased, getting closer to the point where the reactors produce more power than they consume, known as the break-even point.
“The reason we’re excited about fusion now is the same reason we were excited about computers in the 1940s when someone discovered the transistor.” Breakthrough Energy Ventures partner Phil Larochelle
It was as if the fusion research was a race, but the different teams competing weren’t sure where they were along the way. Then, suddenly, they all spotted the finish line: reactors that produce as much energy as they gobble up.
Buoyed by these results, investors are betting big money that fusion will soon banish the ghosts of the past: Fusion startups raised $2.7 billion last year alone, according to a TechCrunch analysis of PitchBook data.
Such a sudden burst of progress in a number of different approaches may seem improbable at first glance. At the very least, it cuts through the popular narrative of the lone genius who makes a key discovery that solves the problem once and for all. But it does indicate that the time for fusion energy has arrived.
“Are we at a tipping point in fusion?” said Eric Toone, technical lead investment committee at Breakthrough Energy Ventures. “We absolutely believe so.”
Breakthrough is one of the few investors who have bet enough to make fusion power a reality. Started by Bill Gates, Breakthrough last year participated in a $1.8 billion series round for Commonwealth Fusion Systems, its third investment in the startup. (Gates personally participated in that round, too.) Chevron and Google in July led a $250 million Series G for TAE Systems, which has been around since 1998. Helion Energy raised $500 million last year, led by Sam Altman. Zap Energy closed a $160 million round earlier this year.
It’s a lot of money based on a technology that has yet to be proven. Fusion power is not predetermined, of course – humanity is not destined to control the power of the sun. But recent momentum created by three technological advances suggests we’re closer than ever. And this frenzy can be explained by a concept that comes from a very different field of study: evolutionary biology.