Learning from our mistakes and successes: It’s time to pay attention to fusion energy
By David Kingham, Executive Vice Chairman at Tokamak Energy.
The Government is set to proceed with an £800m Advanced Research and Invention Agency. It could be bold, successful and very timely in identifying and developing high impact technologies for major problems.
The Covid-19 pandemic and the response of various governments contains many lessons for the future, starting with the obvious point that ignoring evidence and acting slowly makes a problem much worse. But the rapid development and supply of several vaccines is testament to what can be achieved with focus, dedication and investment. One crucial lesson is that there is often no single solution as a crisis unfolds – or, if there is a single solution, it is not ready yet. This means that the world needs several technology options for known risks, ones that are sufficiently developed that they can be accelerated at a time of crisis.
The pandemic has provided a unique opportunity for the UK government that cannot be squandered – it needs to redirect its priorities towards the environment and, crucially, deliver a green recovery plan. This should involve multiple solutions – some of which make incremental improvements in the short term, while others can have a significant impact in the longer term. ARIA provides the means to accelerate the boldest of these potential solutions.
This brings us to fusion—always 30 years away according to sceptics, but things are changing rapidly. There is now an urgent need; there is new technology available; private ventures have emerged and the finance is flowing into them. There is a race on.
In a different field, once the exclusive realm of governments, we are seeing the effect of sustained private investment to tackle bold goals. Space-X has led the way, with manned flight to the ISS being the crowning glory so far. Back in 2001 NASA realised it did not have a successor to the Space Shuttle and did not have time to develop a replacement before it retired. The answer was to look for innovators in the private sector who could do things 10 times cheaper and three times faster than mature organisations while taking much of the risk – and then to reward the innovators who make rapid progress and hit key milestones. The same process could work for fusion and is being actively and successfully promoted in the US by the Fusion Industry Association.
The UK currently has a world lead in research into fusion – energy that is clean, safe and abundant – and the government is doubling down on its investment in the science. At the same time private companies around the world are in a competitive race for fusion energy and are moving much faster than large government projects. We need to establish ways for public and private fusion to work together to clear the remaining hurdles as fast as possible.
This is an area of enormous economic and environmental importance where the UK has the opportunity to maintain a world lead as fusion moves from research to commercialisation. Once compact fusion reactors are fully developed, they will be safely and rapidly deployable with private capital. They are not a panacea to climate change alone, but as we have learned from the development of vaccines for Covid-19, acting quickly and having several options is the key to a successful end to a crisis. The Advanced Research Agency could make the crucial difference.