Oil and gas group Equinor added nuclear fusion technology – hailed by some as the energy transition’s magic bullet – to its zero-carbon investment portfolio that already includes offshore wind and solar.

The Norwegian fossil group joined Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates and others in backing Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS), a US-based start-up developing technologies that it claims can make commercial fusion power – and its promise of unlimited zero-carbon energy (see panel) – a reality in time to make an impact on climate change, offering a more reliable supply source than intermittent wind and solar.

CFS – a spin-out from Massachusetts Institute of Technology – is working on high-temperature superconducting (HTS) magnets that are key to a push to get a commercial fusion energy system operating by the early 2030s – years earlier than massive experimental fusion projects underway elsewhere across the world.

The focus of the CFS effort is its SPARC project with MIT that by 2025 aims to become the first fusion reactor to show ‘net energy gain’ – producing more energy than it consumes – by generating 50-100 megawatts thermal that could be harnessed to produce power in a conventional steam cycle.

The SPARC team – which admits its goals are “audacious” – reckons success would pave the way for commercially-viable fusion generators that can supply baseload power to the grid from facilities comparable in scale to existing gas-fired plants, with theoretical work on systems of up to 500MWt.

Potential game-changer

Equinor took part in a latest $84m funding round by CFS, joining a raft of existing investors that already includes Gates’s Breakthrough Energy Ventures and fellow oil & gas group Eni.

The Norwegian group – which is already investing in renewable sources such as floating wind and solar, as well as hydrogen – said: “Equinor is a broad energy company and we will continue to invest in promising and potentially game-changing zero-carbon energy technologies.

“We are investing in fusion and CFS because we believe in the technology and the company.”

Fusion is seen by some as the key missing piece of the puzzle that can solve the intermittency issue around renewable generators such as wind and solar.

But despite the buzz around the technology, the sheer difficulty of the physics involved has made research in the field the subject of a standing joke that “fusion is always 40 years away”.

There is also almost no visibility over the cost of energy produced by fusion, and many argue that the massive falls in wind and solar power prices, allied with storage technologies, smart networks and the massive potential of green hydrogen, will make fusion economically unviable before it is even born.

Nuclear fusion - star power on earth

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, 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 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.