Can Mass. launch the fusion revolution?
We did it with life sciences, why not energy?
SINCE THE 1950s physicists have researched something they knew was theoretically possible but technically challenging: the effective generation of fusion energy as a substitute for carbon-based power. The prospect of clean, unlimited, and inexpensive electricity generated by safe devices that will not melt down or produce nuclear waste is a holy grail for climate change. Decades of research, aided by innovations in material science and digital technology, have made achievement of that goal palpable. The impending energy revolution could have transformative environmental impact while it generates powerful economic development.
The prospect of success is generating intense governmental and entrepreneurial competition around the world. It is not yet clear how or where the final barriers will fall but the stakes are high. Successful fusion would compete with the historical significance of the industrial revolution and the digital revolution. Massachusetts had a role in both and could lead again if we make it a focal point.
Multiple new companies have emerged to pursue the development of economically effective fusion power. Among the most notable is Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS), a Cambridge-based spin off from MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center. It was founded in 2018 with support from MIT and a $50 million investment from the Italian energy company Eni. The following year CFS raised an additional $115 million from multiple private investors who share the company’s hope “to deliver the fastest path to commercial fusion energy.”
Commonwealth Fusion Systems has numerous competitors. Other companies founded to pursue fusion implementation are operating in New Jersey, southern California, the state of Washington, and elsewhere. There are now enough such businesses that they have formed a trade association to support their efforts.
In addition to emerging businesses, government-sponsored fusion research is continuing around the world. In October, the United Kingdom announced its intention to spend significantly more money to design a fusion power plant over the next four years. They “want the first commercially viable machine to be in the UK.”
Governments in Germany, elsewhere in the EU, Japan, South Korea, and Russia all provide resources for the development of fusion energy. Perhaps the most significant government investments are occurring in China, which this year will open an advanced fusion reactor.
The United States government’s primary focus is on the exploitation of fusion energy for military purposes. A unit of Lockheed Martin is working to create “compact fusion energy” capable of empowering aircraft, ships, and space vehicles with small safe engines and unlimited range.
More striking is a recent patent application by the US Navy for a small Plasma Compression Fusion Device. This emerged from work at the Naval Air Research Center and, while much of it is still secret, the patent disclosure has generated speculation about just how far they may have gotten in the application of fusion energy.
In contrast to its military investments, the US government is now dismissive of civilian fusion development. A Department of Energy unit called the Fusion Energy Sciences program (FES) is the largest federal government funder of research to address the remaining obstacles to implementing fusion. The Trump administration’s FY 2021 budget proposal reduces funding for Fusion Energy Sciences by 36.6 percent.
A second DOE unit, called the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA – E) is intended to promote advances in energy technology and to support financially risky innovations that might not attract investments. Trump’s proposal calls for the abolition of ARPA – E next year.
The budget documents offer no rationale for these steps but one can assume they are related to President Trump’s environmental indifference and his commitment to the coal and oil industries which would suffer painful transitions with the successful implementation of commercial fusion energy. More broadly, his administration has held back $43 billion in low interest loans intended to support clean energy projects. Trump’s efforts to impede civilian fusion development risks putting the US behind other major countries.
In 2008, Massachusetts enacted a Life Sciences Initiative which offered to spend $1 billion in support of evolving biotechnology. That initiative helped the extraordinary growth of companies that have made Massachusetts a global leader in biotech and have enhanced the state’s economy. In 2018, the state renewed that commitment with an additional $623 million to help further accelerate life sciences. Many of those companies are now working to help solve the COVID-19 crisis.It is timely for Massachusetts government and business leadership to consider a similar initiative for the development of the clean, limitless, and inexpensive energy that fusion may produce. Success is not yet certain, but it is now probable and it can change the world. Massachusetts has the educational institutions, research facilities, entrepreneurs, and talent pool to become the leader of fusion development and to concentrate significant aspects of the industry here. Success would reinforce the state’s historical role of innovative breakthroughs, create more jobs, and would help preserve US technological leadership in what will likely be the most impactful innovation of the 21st Century.
Edward M. Murphy worked in state government from 1979-1995, serving as the commissioner of the Department of Youth Services, commissioner of the Department of Mental Health, and executive director of the Health and Educational Facilities Authority. He retired as CEO and chairman of one of the country’s largest providers of services to people with disabilities.