Edge of Infinity

Nuclear Fusion Projects Promise the Sun, but Teams Must Navigate Unknowns

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PHOTO COURTESY OF GENERAL FUSION

Clean, limitless energy is no longer the stuff of science fiction. Nuclear fusion is very real, with the potential to generate an inexhaustible supply of zero-carbon energy, without the intense radioactive risks that come with nuclear fission. Using the same process that powers the sun and stars, fusion eliminates nuclear waste, runs on hydrogen isotopes derived from abundant resources (seawater and lithium) and eradicates the threat of a reactor meltdown. And it’s within reach.

Research teams around the world are working overtime to deliver fusion reactors by the end of the decade that would clear the biggest technological hurdle—creating more energy than they require.

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—Reto Corfu, General Fusion, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

“Fifty years of progress in fusion science, combined with new enabling technologies such as advanced manufacturing, big data analytics and high-speed digital control systems, have brought fusion technology to a point where commercially viable power plants are now clearly in sight,” says Reto Corfu, director, diagnostic and control systems, General Fusion, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

In 2018, Canada’s Strategic Innovation Fund invested CA$49.3 million in General Fusion, a startup backed by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, to stimulate development of fusion reactors fueled by superconducting magnets, which would eliminate the need to heat reactors to extreme temperatures. But myriad technical risks accompany such innovative pursuits.

“Because we’re working with largely unproven, early-scale technology that is constantly evolving, providing firm duration and cost estimates for project tasks becomes a challenge, especially early in the design cycle,” Mr. Corfu says. “A detailed risk register and a risk analysis process allow us to prioritize research and design efforts on the areas of highest technical risk, but also the areas that are most likely to impact project cost and schedule.”

Teams around the world are racing to the fusion finish line.

  • China: In November 2018, a team from China’s Institute of Plasma Physics became the first in the world to make a fusion reactor reach the temperature at which hydrogen atoms start fusing into helium—an advancement that brings scientists one step closer to the holy grail.
  • France: Lessons learned from China’s achievement will provide valuable insights for the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor project, which is building a prototype fusion reactor in southern France. Construction of the scientific facility, a US$25 billion collaboration among the European Union, India, Japan, China, Russia, South Korea and the United States, began in 2010. It aims to conduct its first test of superheated plasma in December 2025—and if all goes according to plan, the reactor could generate full-power fusion by 2035.
  • United States: A team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is partnering with startup Commonwealth Fusion Systems, which raised US$110 million in 2019, to commercialize a new fusion energy reactor.

With startups and research labs leading the charge, there’s a demand for project leaders—and they should start building their technical expertise today, Mr. Corfu says.

“Most project managers are either directly involved in some aspects of technical work or are at least required to be well-versed in the scientific background,” he says. “This can be a difficult combination of skills to acquire, so I can definitely foresee a market for experienced project managers with solid technical backgrounds ready to work in the emerging field of fusion energy.” PM

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