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The Dartmouth
June 20, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Farquharson: Fusion, A Way for the Future

As the need for commercialized sustainable energy sources becomes more urgent, fusion offers a promising solution relevant to the Dartmouth Climate Collaborative’s goal.

This article is featured in the 2024 Commencement & Reunions special issue.

As the urgency of the climate crisis grows rapidly, so too does the race to find alternative energy sources that mitigate the effects of greenhouse gas emissions. Over the past decade, one such option that has drawn attention, especially from the private sector, is fusion energy — energy produced by nuclear fusion reactions in which two light atomic nuclei are combined, creating a larger nucleus that generates great amounts of energy. 

Dartmouth has a tremendous opportunity to partake in the growth and development of fusion energy. As part of the recently-announced Dartmouth Climate Collaborative — a project that allocates more than $500 million for sustainability initiatives and research — the College should promote research and investment in fusion. Whether it be collaboration with private sector partners in high-level research, or building on or creating new approaches to sustainable fusion production through investments in Dartmouth-affiliated or other fusion projects, the Climate Collaborative could be critical in optimizing the potential of sustainable energy. 

In the current climate research landscape, there is an outsized focus on two different types of renewable energy — solar and wind. But both, even together, are ultimately insufficient solutions to the issue of global emissions. Solar power is known, for example, to experience low efficiency, general inconsistency and a heavy dependence on weather conditions, temperature and other uncontrollable factors. On the other hand, wind energy presents drawbacks such as the noise produced by turbines, the disruptive aesthetics of wind farms and their impact on local wildlife. Moreover, fluctuating wind conditions and air density contribute to wind power’s unpredictability. There is a growing desire among scientists for a reliable, centralized, carbon-free energy source to complement wind and solar power in achieving full decarbonization. 

Luckily, there has been a wealth of academic research to address the current shortcomings in renewable energy. A 2018 MIT study analyzed two different decarbonization strategies — one relying solely on solar and wind power coupled with battery storage, and another using continuous carbon-free energy sources such as fusion, bioenergy, fission and natural gas with carbon capture technology. The study found that a diversified energy mix could lead to significant cost reductions, with one scenario showing a maximum decrease of 62% in costs. 

The study’s findings offer fusion as a compelling solution to the limitations of solar and wind power. While reliance on the latter faces a raft of challenges, combining them with fusion offers a compelling solution to the need for reliable and centralized energy sources that are not limited to the current, popular options. If effectively integrated into a union of different renewable energy sources, fusion could help usher in full decarbonization in a more effective manner. 

However, achieving global access to fusion energy requires substantial financial resources. At first, the public sector sought to take charge of the fusion energy development process, but its commitment so far has been insufficient. The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor  project, collectively funded by several national governments including the United States, aimed to harness fusion energy through the construction of a major reactor. Conceived in the 1980s, ITER has vastly exceeded its budget and timeline. Even today, ITER does not seem to be making adequate progress. 

Yet, in place of public sector struggles, the private sector has picked up some of the slack. Recent successes in the private sector suggest that there is hope for the fusion energy industry. Fusion startups like TAE Technologies and Commonwealth Fusion Systems are leading private sector advancements in the industry. This reflects a stark contrast to the unhurried investment in fusion technology by the public sector; the innovative freedom and sheer number of new fusion startups each pursuing unique and lucrative methods of harnessing nuclear fusion have culminated in private investors betting on major payoffs in just a decade. 

TAE, since its inception in 1998, has seen numerous successes in fusion energy. For instance, it has produced stable plasma at temperatures of more than 50 million degrees Celsius through its compact reactor designs — a crucial step toward commercialization. The company’s approach uses the hydrogen-boron fuel cycle, which is considered environmentally friendly. Hence, TAE has attracted significant funding from investors, including $280 million for their reactor-scale demonstration facility, Copernicus, which aims to operate at more than 100 million degrees Celsius. 

By the same token, Commonwealth Fusion Systems is known for its innovative use of high-temperature superconducting magnets, which could potentially reduce the size and cost of conventional fusion reactors. Those advancements, in turn, could maximize the feasibility and economic promise of fusion as a whole. In all, these notable advancements demonstrate the potentially significant role the private sector can play in realizing sustainable, commercial fusion energy. 

As an investment opportunity, fusion energy is unique. The recent surge in private funding for fusion suggests significant investor confidence in its success. Its victories, I believe, should encourage investors, from novices to more experienced ones looking for unsaturated investment markets, to partake in supporting this upcoming industry. However, Dartmouth has a major role to play, especially if individual investors are unable to contribute to the industry; some of the more than $500 million allocated to promoting sustainability should be used for direct investment in fusion firms or firms backing the fusion effort. If not directly invested in fusion, Dartmouth funds could be used to create a fusion research regime here at the College. Ultimately, the Climate Collaborative represents a perfect opportunity for Dartmouth to establish a firm role in fusion energy and contribute meaningfully to the development of long-term sustainable energy sources.

Opinion articles represent the views of their author(s), which are not necessarily those of The Dartmouth.