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Congress earmarks cash for fusion energy development

When it comes to smashing atoms, things are really starting to heat up

A new funding bill in the US Congress has put aside millions of dollars for fusion energy research, despite the fusion-powered future being some years away. 

The US Congress' 2022 Consolidated Appropriations Act carves out funding for a previously established public/private fusion research partnership program, as well as for the Office of Fusion Energy Sciences, a US Government group heading up government fusion research.

The OFES is getting a record $713m, while the partnership program gets its first-ever cash infusion of $345m in funding over five years. 

The US government sees a public/private partnership as the way forward on fusion research, and the Fusion Industry Association already has plans on how it would like to implement that partnership.

Specifically, the FIA said it wants to launch a cost sharing program similar to the one that built NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program, and said its partners are "ready to support up to $1bn in funding."

There are almost as many methods of generating fusion as there are companies researching it. Some organizations are using particle accelerators, while others are using plasma jet magneto inertial fusion. Still others are approaching the problem with a polywell, spheromak, dense plasma focus or a stellarator in mind. 

UK-based Tokamak Energy was in the news this week showing how the fusion future might play out. The company taken the tokamak approach to nuclear fusion, and recently reported that it was the first privately-funded spherical tokamak to reach the 100 million degrees Celsius (~100m Kelvin) threshold. Tokamak said that, while it didn't do anything that government-funded projects haven't done before, it did it all privately, in just five years, for less than $70m and with a smaller device. 

Tokamak Energy is now in the same place as everyone else: Figuring out how to take its controlled nuclear reaction and turn it into usable energy.

For now, seeing investment start to ramp up for US and UK initiatives is a sign that governments are beginning to take the possibility of fusion energy seriously. While one could argue even technologies like quantum computing have seen more comprehensive investment, it is a start, and one that could kick off an entirely new technology development ecosystem.

As the Fusion Industry Association adds, "Long a priority for the Fusion Industry Association, this new milestone-based public private partnership program would allow the Department of Energy to partner with private companies to build new fusion energy devices, focused towards defined milestones, as agreed by a competitive application process." ®

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