US could operate a fusion plant by 2040, Academy says

12 March 2021

The US National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM) has called for urgent investment by the government and private sector to enable a pilot fusion plant to be operational in the 2035-2040 timeframe.

General Atomics operates the DIII-D National Fusion Facility on behalf of the DOE (Image: General Atomics)

NASEM's report, Bringing Fusion to the US Grid, published in February, builds on the work of the 2019 Final Report of the Committee on a Strategic Plan for US Burning Plasma Research. It identifies key goals and innovations needed to support the development of a US fusion pilot plant, many of which it says should be developed in parallel to meet the challenge of operating a pilot plant between 2035 and 2040.

Results from its investments in the international ITER fusion project, coupled with Department of Energy (DOE)-funded research, mean the USA is positioned to begin planning its first fusion pilot plant now provided the requisite resources are prioritised and allocated, the Academy said.

"The US fusion community has been a pioneer of fusion research since its inception and now has the opportunity to bring fusion to the marketplace," said Richard Hawryluk, associate director for fusion at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory and chair of the NASEM committee that wrote the report.

Using fusion as an energy source will require the resolution of significant technical, scientific and economic challenges, NASEM said. "However, other countries and groups around the world are rapidly moving toward fusion pilot plants of their own. If the United States can overcome these challenges and provide the resources for a fusion pilot plant as outlined in the report, it has the opportunity to play a global leadership role to add fusion to its arsenal of low-carbon energy alternatives."

"For the United States to be a leader in fusion and to make an impact on the transition to a low-carbon emission electrical system by 2050, the Department of Energy and the private sector should produce net electricity in a fusion pilot plant in the United States in the 2035-2040 timeframe," the report recommends. The DOE should "move forward now" to create national teams, including public-private partnerships, that will develop conceptual pilot plant designs and technology roadmaps and lead to an engineering design of a pilot plant that will bring fusion to commercial viability.

"NASEM is an important voice in a growing chorus that advocates for the aggressive science and technology programmes required to keep the US at the forefront of fusion energy development," said Tony Taylor, vice president for magnetic fusion energy at General Atomics (GA), which operates the DIII-D National Fusion Facility for the DOE Office of Science. Research at DIII-D is establishing the scientific and technical basis for fusion energy and helping lay the groundwork for deployment of the first fusion pilot plant. GA is also supplying several key components for ITER, including its Central Solenoid, a 1000-tonne pulsed superconducting magnet that will stand at the heart of the fusion device.

"Fusion energy is much closer than many people realise and could soon provide a source of carbon-free electricity for the US grid, playing a key role as the nation decarbonises its generation infrastructure," the company said.

Researched and written by World Nuclear News