White House hopes $180M will solve science, tech gaps in commercial fusion power

Researchers get 4 years, a small pot of cash, and long row to hoe before making tech practical by next decade

The Biden administration is still chasing its fusion energy dreams, announcing new strategies and some funding – albeit a relatively paltry amount – to iron out kinks in a future fusion pilot plant. 

The White House said yesterday that it was convening a meeting of leaders from the government, academia and industry to get an update on fusion energy after a banner period that began in late 2022 with the first fusion ignition and continued with predictions of a hot 2024. 

While not explicitly saying it wants to reignite the flurry of conversation around fusion energy that captured media attention last year, the White House did say it hoped its backing would accelerate the development of a fusion pilot plant that would come online in the next decade.

According to the statement, everything announced is part of the Biden administration's "decadal vision" for fusion energy development, released in April 2022, not long after Congress earmarked cash for fusion energy research. The investment was rewarded later that same year when researchers from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory actually managed to achieve fusion ignition.

But while the Biden administration might be excited by fusion's potential, it's still being restrained in its funding.

 For all its claims that the US "has the world's most vibrant fusion industry" and that investment now "will help solidify America's global [fusion] leadership," the Department of Energy is awarding just $180 million to solve problems necessary to construct a working fusion pilot plant. 

The funds will be available under a newly introduced program called the Fusion Innovation Research Engine (FIRE), which will "support teams working to close key science and technology gaps to a commercially relevant fusion pilot plant, while bridging foundational research and enabling technologies to the needs of the growing US fusion industry," the White House said. 

This is a funding opportunity, mind you, meaning interested research partners will be able to apply for a chunk of the available cash. According to the funding opportunity announcement [PDF], the DoE anticipates the program will run for four years.

It also remains unclear what fusion researchers can do with up to $5 million, which is the ceiling for funding under the FIRE program. 

There's a lot of fusion work still to do

The fact that LLNL managed to achieve fusion ignition is a feat worth celebrating, but let's not exaggerate: It's a breakthrough, but a completely impractical one at this point. 

As of late last year, by which point LLNL had achieved ignition multiple times, its system was still only one percent efficient, and while the fusion fuel pellets used in the experiment produced more energy than the X-rays shot into them, a lot more power was actually needed to fire the X-rays than made it into the fusion energy loop. 

In other words, we can do it, but still not in a way that makes it scalable and commercially viable. 

The Biden administration clearly knows that, which is why the $180 million in FIRE funding isn't the only fusion initiative the White House announced this week.

Along with sharing the funding news, the White House said the DoE was launching its own decadal vision for fusion energy to support Biden's 2022 plan. The DoE itself said it was also releasing a new Fusion Energy Sciences program plan that would more aggressively focus on closing tech gaps toward commercial fusion power. 

The DoE is releasing a request for information to gather ideas on building a public-private fusion consortium to serve as a source of pooled funding, and said it had signed agreements with all eight companies it selected for its milestone-based fusion development program.

That program comes with additional funding for the eight companies to develop private sector fusion plants. Each company stands to get up to $46m in the first 18 months of the five-year deal. 

"We will leverage the opportunities enabled by our world-leading public and private fusion leadership, including humanity's first-ever demonstration of fusion ignition [and] advances in technologies such as high-temperature superconductors, advanced materials, and artificial intelligence to accelerate fusion energy," DoE deputy secretary David Turk said of the news. 

"The development of fusion energy as a clean, safe, abundant energy source has become a global race, and the US will stay in the lead," Turk added. ®

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