Chevron invested in US start-up Zap Energy to join a growing rank of oil giants investing in nuclear fusion – the process that fuels the stars and is seen by some as the energy transition’s magic bullet but others as a wild goose chase.
Chevron Technology Ventures made an undisclosed series A investment in Zap Energy, one of a plethora of global specialists aiming to make commercial fusion power – and its promise of unlimited zero-carbon energy on tap (see panel ) – a reality in time to make an impact on climate change, promising a more reliable supply source than intermittent wind and solar.
Zap Energy claims to have developed an innovative method to achieve the ‘confinement’ of a plasma to compress hydrogen atoms so they collide – so achieving the fusion which releases substantial amounts of energy that can be tapped.
Instead of confining the plasma using magnets or lasers, as favoured by other fusion specialists, Zap Energy reckons its use of ‘sheared flow’ electric currents offers a cheaper and faster route to a commercial reactor.
Seattle-based Zap Energy is commercialising technology developed at the University of Washington and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and counts fossil energy veteran Sir Frank Chapman, former CEO of BG Group, among its independent directors.
By investing, Chevron joins Equinor and Eni among the oil industry’s backers of fusion. The latter are both investors in another technology start-up called Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS ), which also counts Bill Gates among its backers.
“We see fusion technology as a promising low-carbon future energy source,” said Barbara Burger, president of Chevron Technology Ventures.
Fusion is regarded 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 or the plants needed to achieve it, 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.
US supermajor Chevron itself is seen as a laggard in renewables compared to European peers such as Shell or Total. However, in July it did make its biggest move yet into green power when it signed an agreement with US wind and solar generator Algonquin Power & Utilities to co-develop at least 500MW of renewables over the next four years.
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 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.