For the first time, scientists at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory announced yesterday that they achieved a nuclear fusion reaction resulting in a net energy gain. If true, this would validate the hypothesis that fusion represents a potentially limitless source of clean energy without using fossil fuels.
We shouldn’t expect this to change our day-to-day lives anytime soon-after all; commercialization is still several years away. That’s not to say this isn’t a significant milestone; scientists have been chasing a breakthrough like this for years. What is truly exciting about this announcement is that it could signal a shift in nuclear fusion from a science problem to an engineering problem.
So while we won’t have fusion-generated electricity powering our fridges anytime soon, here are a few ways this fusion milestone could affect startups and society in the future:
1. The Fusion Economy
Commercializing nuclear fusion and delivering nuclear fusion-generated power to consumers will require commercializing an entire ecosystem of supporting technologies. Think about every component that these scientists used to create this fusion reaction, then imagine all the effort it will take to manufacture and deploy those components at a scale and cost that pencils out economically. A vast array of lasers, magnets, special alloys, bespoke software, etc., must be refined and commercialized to support nuclear fusion.
2. The Federal Government reasserts itself as the mother of world-changing R&D
The private sector will often take credit for the economic benefits associated with publicly funded research. It’s critical to recognize that breakthroughs like nuclear fusion or the internet would not exist without the initial backing of the federal government. The timing of this announcement could also mean that federal grant opportunities in the next 3-5 years from the CHIPS Plus Act and the Inflation Reduction Act will go towards commercializing fusion-related technologies. Hopefully, this nuclear fusion-powered win will result in increased bipartisan support for government-funded R&D 3. Fusion could help us reduce our dependence on……..batteries?!
Hear me out here; this is a “way too early” hot take. For years people have focused on increased energy storage as the holy grail of renewable energy adoption. This is primarily because of a phenomenon known as the “duck curve,” where peak demand for electricity is misaligned with peak generation for renewable energy. The problem with this solution is that battery manufacturing, particularly lithium-ion batteries, can have serious environmental downsides. At OneValley, we have seen a lot of startup activity related to decreasing our dependence on mineral-intensive batteries. While increased storage capacity will increase the uptake of renewables, we’re starting to see the problems associated with minerals-based storage at scale. Fusion could provide clean and abundant energy at night when renewables like solar may not be as abundant. Nuclear fusion could significantly reduce the need for at-scale decentralized energy storage.
4. Several social impact businesses that have never made sense could suddenly be viable
Limitless, cheap, and clean energy could suddenly accelerate the feasibility of several social impact companies. Industries like carbon capture, vapor-based water generation, home-based indoor farming, desalination, and recycling could all be significantly more feasible if the energy provided came from nuclear fusion.
Again, we’re still years, maybe decades, away from seeing nuclear fusion powering our everyday lives, but the potential is so great it’s hard not to stop and think about how this exciting tech will change our lives.
Alex Fang serves as the Director of Social Impact at OneValley, where he helps sustainability-minded founders grow their startups.