Editor’s Note (12/14/22): On Tuesday U.S. officials reported that, for the first time, a nuclear fusion facility created slightly more energy than it used in a fusion reaction. Last year Representative Don Beyer of Virginia explained how Congress can push fusion energy to help with the climate crisis and U.S. competitiveness.
The existential threat of the climate emergency poses perhaps the greatest danger to human health and prosperity we have ever faced. And it carries with it a particular challenge: even with current growth in renewable energy development, a significant portion of future energy is projected to be supplied by greenhouse-gas-emitting fossil fuels. World energy production is expected to double by 2050, and most electricity is generated from these fuels. This is a major problem as we try to stave off the worst effects of climate change, and the problem is unlikely to go away any time soon.
But there is a technological solution on the horizon that has the potential to permanently solve this energy problem, give us a powerful weapon against the climate emergency and unlock unimaginable economic potential. This technology is fusion energy. And once commercialized, it could provide vast amounts of zero-carbon energy at low costs. The U.S. Congress needs to get behind this approach.
Fusion, as Scientific American readers know, is a nuclear reaction that powers the sun, producing energy by combining two light nuclei. It releases enormous amounts of energy without producing long-lasting radioactive isotopes or dangerous waste products.
For decades the tantalizing possibilities of fusion have been the province of futurists. The temperatures and pressure required to enable fusion processes are significant, and the materials necessary to harness and control the reaction long surpassed our technological capabilities. But scientists and engineers have methodically tackled these challenges and are starting to bring fusion power for humanity out of the realm of science fiction.
A burgeoning U.S. fusion industry is making progress toward introducing energy-producing devices that will provide clean, safe, and affordable electricity and industrial heat. Several American companies are already working on the goal of commercializing fusion technology and providing power to the grid, with recently reported successes contributing to an optimistic outlook. The Department of Energy’s Fusion Energy Sciences Advisory Committee recently recommended starting up a U.S. experimental pilot plant by the 2040s. A preliminary design for such a plant should be completed by 2025, according to a strategic plan published earlier this year by the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine.
This effort dovetails with international research, principally the fusion experiment called ITER, located in France and scheduled to start operations within the next 10 years. Researchers and policy makers within the U.S. and international fusion community agree that ITER has kept fusion moving forward, taking advantage of significant advances in materials and computing and an evolving understanding of what it takes to make fusion work. The U.S government has helped to fund ITER, and that money often supports contracts held by U.S. companies, labs and academic institutions. It has been an important source of international cooperation.
This type of progress means that investments from the federal government could help put fusion on a path to become a cornerstone in the fight against the climate emergency. Until now, Congress’s attention on energy topics has largely been dominated by debates over fossil fuels and questions of whether, and how much, to support established renewables. The time has come for Congress to take fusion energy more seriously, to educate its members on this energy’s incredible potential and to make smart investments that could reap tremendous benefits.
I recently formed the Congressional Fusion Energy Caucus to help achieve these ends. Our new working group brought together members of Congress from both parties, including party leaders, who believe fusion should be part of the climate solution. We are not just doing this for symbolism or to check a box. I worked with this group to spearhead a bipartisan push to significantly increase federal investments in fusion energy through the Department of Energy’s Fusion Energy Sciences program. This increase would fund scientific infrastructure, as well as research and development, to accelerate current advances.
Today Congress is working closely with the Biden administration on a once-in-a-generation investment to rebuild infrastructure and address the climate crisis. This investment is sorely needed, and there are numerous worthy technologies in the climate space that could benefit from these funds. Fusion energy deserves to be among them.
Critics have argued that we spend too much on fusion, given the lack of tangible results to date, but the potential reward on investment is astronomically high. Conversely, the costs of failure to develop clean energy sources with the capacity to power our grid is unacceptable. We are closer than we have ever been before to success.
We are already seeing that the green economy holds huge potential for economic growth. Clean energy jobs are one of the fastest growing sectors of employment, including in Virginia, which I represent in the U.S. House of Representatives. Internationally, we often find ourselves in competition with other nations that invested early in things like solar technology. This is the time to put America on stronger footing to develop what could someday be the most important and powerful source of energy in human history.
Innovation in this area could eventually realize economic opportunities worth trillions—yes, that’s with a “t”—of dollars for our country. It also has profound implications for our national security at a time when so many challenges in international relations on every continent are still driven by energy policy and the global competition for resources.
If we do not pursue fusion energy, others will, and U.S. economic interests and influence will diminish as a result. ITER could demonstrate the feasibility of fusion and prepare the way for commercial facilities in any country. By funding research and demonstration projects in the U.S., as well as the international work, we can become the first country to commercialize fusion. There are areas in which scientific cooperation with allies will be mutually beneficial in fusion development, but it is vital that we lead rather than follow this technological progress.
American scientists and engineers have accomplished technological miracles and saved countless lives through the rapid development and delivery of vaccines during this pandemic, an achievement few thought possible just one year ago. With the support of Congress and the federal government, the U.S. could become the global leader in fusion energy and accomplish new miracles for the environment, our economy and all of humanity.