The future of nuclear fusion energy: An overview of market drivers, challenges and R&D opportunities

  • By Thanusa Elango
    • Oct 26, 2023
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The UK government believes that nuclear energy is the only practical low-carbon solution for delivering enough energy to meet the fundamental demands of consumers in a way that also provides energy security.

In December 2022, there was a landmark breakthrough in fusion energy technology when a laboratory in the US was able to release more energy from fusion than was used in creating the reaction. This net fusion breakthrough has been the catalyst for the private sector to speed up the technology’s commercialisation. An in-depth article from McKinsey suggested that the recent technological advances in fusion had brought the dream of a zero-carbon power grid into touching distance, with their research suggesting that it could be the most dominant source of affordable and clean energy for Europe by 2050.

Delivering fusion as a flexible source of clean energy is not without its challenges – not least of which being that there’d need to be a breakthrough in both plasma physics and materials science, along with other complex engineering and political hurdles.

Despite technological challenges and some societal objections to nuclear, the opportunities are immense – making fusion energy an area of intense research and development (R&D) across a diverse range of sectors, including manufacturing, fusion materials, application (including energy production, space propulsion, and medical), renewable energy, waste treatments, and heating and cooling systems.

In this article, we look at the forces propelling R&D in nuclear fusion, examining what’s driving the market, including technological advances, policy support and the drive to decarbonise the grid. We also look at the barriers to progress, such as high funding costs and the risks associated with fusion.

Nuclear fusion energy market drivers

The potential of a reliable, clean, and virtually limitless energy supply from a nuclear fusion-powered grid is too compelling for any government to ignore. As such, a consortium of world governments including the EU, China, and the US are working to deliver advancement in fusion technology.

Nuclear energy is seen as cheaper than fossil fuels based on the Levelised Cost of Electricity (LCOE), which is the discounted lifetime cost of building and operating a power plant. Despite the high upfront costs of building nuclear power plants, the World Nuclear Association describes nuclear energy as more economic than fossil fuels based on a low discount rate for operating costs that takes into account the long life of nuclear fuel, as well as other advantages such as contributing to decarbonisation, security and reliability.

The UK’s aim is to diversify the energy mix and increase resilience against supply disruptions, reducing the dependence on imported fossil fuels to increase energy security and cut carbon emissions. Its focus has been to invest in nuclear energy projects, including Small Modular Reactors and Advanced Modular Reactors. They’ve also initiated the STEP programme, aiming to generate net electricity from fusion reaction, to construct a prototype fusion power plant within the country by 2040.

Fusion energy also aligns with the carbon reduction targets set by the UK government and international agreements. The UK government plans to invest up to £650 million until 2027, in addition to £126 million announced in November 2022 to support nuclear fusion R&D programmes This trend shows a growing recognition of the role of fusion in driving economic growth, job creation, and cutting-edge industry development.

Industry blockers

Despite the potential rewards, the path to nuclear fusion energy faces several significant hurdles, which we explore below.

Cost and funding

Nuclear fusion is an expensive endeavour. The high capital costs involved in building and maintaining experimental reactors, along with the long timelines required for development, make securing continuous funding a significant challenge. Additionally, the uncertain return on investment due to the experimental nature of the technology can deter potential investors.

Technical complexity

Achieving controlled nuclear fusion is a complex task that requires breakthroughs in several fields. It involves managing extremely high temperatures and pressures and controlling the unstable and super heated plasma the reactor. Consequently, progress is imperative not only in material science but in multiple other areas to develop components capable of withstanding these extreme conditions.

Materials

One of the major challenges in nuclear fusion R&D is developing materials capable of withstanding the intense conditions inside a fusion reactor. These materials need to be resistant to high temperatures, radiation, and mechanical stress. This represents a significant engineering hurdle.

Public perception

Despite the potential benefits of fusion energy, concerns about safety, and potential misuse can impact public acceptance. While only 17% of the public oppose the use of nuclear energy, this does tend to be a vocal group who regularly protest against nuclear projects.

International collaboration

Fusion R&D often involves international collaboration, which can be logistically and politically complex. Coordinating efforts between different countries requires diplomatic skill and can be hindered by differing national interests and regulatory frameworks. Despite these challenges, international collaboration is crucial for sharing knowledge and resources in the pursuit of viable fusion energy.

R&D opportunities for nuclear fusion energy

R&D in the fusion energy sector is extensive, ranging from material science and engineering to design fusion reactos and alternative fuel sources. Key areas include assessing the radiation resistance and durability of materials used in fusion reactors, investigating materials’ sensitivity to radiation-induced damage, and exploring the feasibility of advanced manufacturing techniques in nuclear fusion.

While there are ongoing technological advances in all these areas, nuclear fusion’s practical application is still being developed, as well expressed by Thomas Griffiths et al in The commercialisation of fusion for the energy market: a review of socio-economic studies:

“At present, fusion is faced with the challenge of making predictions about its future prospects before it has been realised as a technology. In corollary, the fusion community is required to answer critical questions levelled to the rest of society: what form does it take? How much it will cost? Why do it? And, based on the previous questions, when will it be commercially realised (all relative to other technologies)?”

As such, the current R&D emphasis lies in commercialising the technology on a large scale and optimising energy yield.

Below, we explore the main areas of R&D focused on nuclear fusion.

Material science and engineering

Research is focused on assessing the radiation resistance and durability of materials exposed to high-energy neutron irradiation within a fusion reactor. 

As well as this, investigations are being carried out to understand a material’s sensitivity to radiation-induced damage, which is crucial for improving performance and longevity in a fusion environment.

There is also emphasis on exploring the feasibility of advanced manufacturing techniques in nuclear fusion. Such techniques could enhance safety, reduce costs, and simplify the construction of fusion vessel components. Additionally, these methods might offer solutions to mitigate issues like distortion, residual stresses, and crack formation in large structures, further enhancing the efficiency and effectiveness of nuclear fusion energy production.

Sustainability

Sustainability is a critical aspect of fusion energy research. This includes developing methods to recover and recycle materials used in fusion reactors, designing safe and stable waste forms, enhancing recycling processes, and developing efficient methods for removing impurities generated during fusion reactions.

Design

Design research focuses on nuclear remote handling and robotics. For example, developing robotic systems for handling hazardous waste materials as well as maintaining and inspecting structures, systems and components.

Design research also looks at computer modelling and simulation tools, which are essential for testing new ideas and ensuring safety.

Plasma confinement and stability

This research aims to improve techniques for effectively confining plasma to maintain the desired temperature and particle density, enhance the probability of fusion interactions at high plasma temperatures and extend the interaction time between particles within the plasma.

Efforts are also being made to fulfil the confinement time criteria per the Lawson Criterion, a prerequisite for achieving fusion. 

Alternative confinement approaches are also under research, including Magnetic Confinement (MCF), which focuses on maintaining stable plasma conditions and addressing issues like efficient helium ash removal. As well as this, Inertial Confinement research is centred around maintaining stability during fuel implosion and managing small perturbations that can affect plasma compression, density, and temperatures.

Magnet technology

Research is needed to develop superconducting magnets and coils, particularly high-temperature superconductor tapes, for compact magnetic confinement fusion (MCF) and magnetised target fusion (MTF) reactors. The focus is also on addressing magnetic quench issues, a thermo-magnetic instability that can cause damage in superconducting magnet systems. As well as this, innovative methods for generating and controlling magnetic fields in fusion reactors are being developed.

Work is also being done to determine the most effective arrangement of high-temperature superconductor tapes in cables and coils.

Power conversion

Research aims to enhance power conversion systems within fusion devices, improving the system’s conversion efficiency and overall performance. Since neutrons carry 80% of the energy released in D-T fusion, efforts are being made to enhance the conversion of neutron kinetic energy into thermal energy. This could be achieved through the development and improvement of neutron blankets. As well as this, advanced coolant systems within fusion devices are being explored to ensure efficient heat transfer and management.

Also, developing secondary coolant systems and turbines is crucial to harness thermal energy and convert it into electricity efficiently.

Fuel

Fuel research is exploring alternative sources, such as mining helium-3 from the Moon’s soil, which is essential for D-3He fusion devices. Current research also demonstrates nuclear fusion between protons and boron-11 atoms, making boron a potential fusion fuel given its abundance on Earth.

Supporting nuclear fusion energy development

Nuclear fusion, with its potential for providing limitless, clean and secure energy, could hold the key to a sustainable future. At Leyton, we’re proud to work with innovative businesses pioneering advancements in this groundbreaking sector. With funding key to success, our R&D experts help these businesses identify qualifying spend for tax credits, often working on complex projects to effectively reduce their tax liability and free up significant funds for further innovation.

Are you working on innovations in the nuclear fusion energy industry? Speak to one of our consultants to find out how we can support your R&D efforts.

Author

Thanusa Elango

Technical Consultant

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