Nuclear fusion could match wind and solar by delivering power as cheap as $25/MWh, claimed the founder of an Oxford University spin-out commercialising technology that aims to be “grid-ready this decade”.
The claim is made in a scientific paper published by Nicholas Hawker, CEO and co-founder of First Light Fusion, which is working on a power plant design to tap inertial confinement fusion, one branch of research underway into a technology that’s claimed by some to be a ‘magic bullet’ for the energy transition that can supply unlimited clean baseload electricity.
The peer-reviewed paper in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society says using First Light Fusion’s technique – which claims to take significant costs out of the fusion process compared to other approaches – could deliver the $25/MWh levelised cost of energy (LCOE) “when the technology has matured”, without specifying a date.
First Light Fusion cited a $100/MWh comparison for standard nuclear energy and “up to $50/MWh” for onshore wind, the latter including costs for managing intermittency.
First Light Fusion said it is “accelerating” work on a power plant design to tap its technology, although the first plant won’t offer an LCOE at the $25 benchmark.
The company was founded by Hawker, a former Oxford University engineering lecturer, and Yiannis Ventikos, professor of mechanical engineering at University College London. First Light Fusion was spun-out of Oxford in 2011.
Hawker said: “This new work shows how fusion can be cost competitive with all generation technologies.
“While we continue our work to demonstrate fusion, we are accelerating plans for developing the engineering of this new design. Those plans are already well advanced with detailed engineering work scoped. Our ambition remains to be grid ready this decade."
First Light Fusion’s claims for its technology focus on what’s said to be the potential for higher energy yield per “shot” of a pellet of fuel that’s fired to create the conditions for nuclear fusion to take place.
Inertial confinement fusion is one major strand of research into nuclear fusion (see panel), whose supporters hail for its potential to deliver unlimited zero-carbon energy by fusing atoms, a process that’s said to be free of the risks of its nuclear cousin fission, which splits atoms apart.
An alternative approach that uses magnetic confinement is the subject of major global research and commercialisation efforts, notably by Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS), which is backed by Bill Gates and oil giant Equinor, and aims to have a pilot reactor operating by the end of the decade.
Fusion’s advocates claim when it is tapped to supply power – for example as the source of heat in a conventional steam-cycle plant – it can plug the gaps in the energy transition left by wind and solar intermittency, or where renewables are too difficult to deploy.
However sceptics claim that the timescales given for widescale commercial deployment are either too long or not specified at all, making its contribution to fighting climate change highly questionable when compared to proven renewable energy technologies that can be applied at scale now.
Nuclear fusion energy aims to harness the reactions that power the sun to produce unlimited, on-demand, clean energy.
The process involves changing a gas to a plasma at temperatures of tens of millions of degrees, often aided by superconducting magnets, to create collisions between hydrogen atoms, tapping the energy that’s produced.
Unlike its close cousin nuclear fission – basis of the current global nuclear industry, which relies on splitting rather than combining atoms – fusion is said by scientists to present no risk of the sort of runaway reaction that led to the Chernobyl disaster.
And while it is not waste-free, the by-products are said to be low and short-lived compared to fission, and much more easily manageable.
Almost every major economy is involved in a project that aims to crack fusion energy, with the largest example the ITER project in France that's backed by 35 nations.
But with the most ambitious projects not due to even start experiments until 2040 or 2050, it is questionable whether they will be in time to make any impact on climate change – assuming they work at all.