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Scientists, why not simply invent a working fusion plant using $50m from Uncle Sam

You even have until the end of the 2030s to get it done

The US Department of Energy has announced plans to award up to $50 million in funds to private businesses to develop a working fusion pilot plant (FPP) by the 2030s. 

Nuclear fusion is expected, or hoped or dreamed, to produce abundant amounts of energy with zero or near-zero carbon emissions during operation. According to DoE Deputy Secretary David Turk, and anyone else rational, the development of fusion power could be key to energy abundance and security around the world.

"Fusion holds the promise of being an on-demand, safe, abundant source of carbon-free primary energy and electricity, with the potential to transform the way we generate and use energy," Turk said

Turk added that the private sector has invested nearly $5 billion into fusion projects. With the DoE's $50 million (no typo) in funding allocated to support for-profit entities, it's likely some of the funds will end up in the hands of organizations that have already done some work toward building working fusion plants. China, meanwhile, is drinking our milkshake.

Entities wishing to bid for some of the $50m in fusion funding [PDF] can submit proposals for projects that will lead to the design of a viable FPP sometime this decade. The overall goal is to arrive at a working reactor by the early 2030s. Simply getting it to work is one thing, there must also be plans to improve the fusion performance of proposed systems so that they're functional on a practical level by the latter end of the 2030s.

Are the DoE's fusion dreams plausible?

The DoE plans to award funds over time, maxing out at five years, with that period only being contingent upon awardees meeting early milestones which they themselves will have to define in their bids.

The DoE will consider a viable FPP to be one that can demonstrate "a significant amount of net fusion electricity for three or more continuous hours … at a total capital cost that can attract private funding." The DoE defines significant electrical production to be greater than 50 MWe – a very ambitious target considering what state-of-the-art fusion experiments are currently capable of.

Earlier this month, scientists in South Korea succeeded in sustaining a plasma gas reaction at 100 million Kelvin for 20 seconds without instabilities – a major breakthrough for nuclear fusion, but nowhere near 50MWe of electricity or three hours of continuous operation. 

In January of this year, researchers at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California also made progress toward fusion power with a series of experiments that produced more than 100 kilojoules of energy. While that's definitely progress, it still only equates to around 28 watt-hours of electricity – not even enough to usefully illuminate the average incandescent bulb. ®

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