Nuclear fusion has inspired scientists for decades with its potential to produce abundant carbon-free energy. As Voice of America correspondent Phil Dierking reports from Seattle, a new company hopes to win the race to produce the technology that would make this type of energy available to consumers.
Current nuclear energy comes from fission, the process that harvests the energy created by splitting atoms. But this fission process also creates radioactive byproducts that can be harmful.
But fusing these atoms into helium, the process that occurs inside the Sun, produces no harmful byproducts and can produce abundant, clean energy.
Ben Levitt heads research and production at the new US company Zap Energy.
“Fusion is truly the next step in human development. This source of energy is abundant, safe, leaves no carbon residue and can free us from the limitations of terrestrial energy sources”, he says.
Fusion energy is not commercially available as it is more difficult to fuse atoms together than to separate them. One of the obstacles is the extreme energy and heat required to produce this type of reaction in a controlled environment. Mr. Levitt explains that the company “Zap Energy” uses a high current that passes through the gas plasma with ionized atoms, without negatively charged electrons or positively charged ions.
“You can think of it as lightning, which creates its own magnetic field, so it keeps itself confined and heats up to the right level for fusion,” says Mr. Levitt.
Because of the progress achieved, the US Department of Energy awarded the company Zap one of this year’s eight funds intended for innovation. A portion of those funds will be used to build a plant where fusion-based technologies will be tested, says the Department of Energy’s fusion coordinator, Scott Hsu.
“We want to find ways to encourage this great private sector interest in the development of fusion technology and speed things up. We are at an inflection point where if we really focus on the technology, the engineering needs and the materials that are needed, I think it is possible to accelerate its development. At this point, it may be more a matter of will and investment than a matter of time,” says Mr. Hsu.
Decades of promising theories about bringing fusion to market have yet to produce significant new technologies. Neither Zap nor the U.S. Department of Energy have a timeline for when they think consumers will be able to power their homes with this type of energy.
But when that day comes, it will have been worth the wait and effort, says Ahmed Diallo, head of the Energy Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency.
“The day we have fusion energy, we won’t have to worry about energy anymore. That’s how people should think. We will have abundant energy. We will not limit ourselves to a few power plants and can work to solve other problems. So patience is the key and I want people to understand that this will be the big solution”, says Mr. Diallo.
Aided by government funding, the Fusion Industry Association says there are already over $6 billion in private sector funding for new fusion energy companies.