Back to the future: Revisiting the perspectives on nuclear fusion and juxtaposition to existing energy sources

Abstract

This article reviews and launches perspectives on the progress of nuclear fusion research and development. To this end, the current state of nuclear fusion technology, the recent breakthroughs in nuclear fusion research occurred in the US, Japan, and China, the role of private companies and investments in nuclear fusion research and development are investigated for both advanced and emerging economies. The survey draws upon academic sources and media contributions from experts in the field of nuclear fusion. While nuclear fusion has reached the break-even point in the generation of nuclear fusion electricity, there are still serious challenges that will obviate the market alignment of nuclear fusion energy until the early 2030s – and more realistically the mid-2050s. Nonetheless, never in history, the level of public support and private engagement for nuclear fusion energy research and development has been as high as now. Furthermore, the study shows that there is a steadily increasing accumulation of scholarly knowledge on nuclear fusion and a broad consensus among the leading experts that nuclear fusion is the “holy grail” of the transition toward a post-resource, and hence, fully circular energy system.

Introduction

Human civilization is facing existential risks that in essence, emanate from the reliance on nonrenewable fossil fuels on the one hand side and the ongoing climate crisis that is mainly driven and aggravated by the reliance on fossil fuels and mankind’s inexorably increasing energy demand on the other hand side [1]. Transition to clean energy systems plays a central role in the prevention, or at least reduction of global energy insecurity and global atmospheric pollution. Only a climate-neutral and abundant energy system can ensure the current high living standards of the OECD member states and the growing population and converging living standards of the developing and transition economies without breaking the planetary boundaries [[2], [3], [4]]. Hence, within the framework of the Paris Accord, the focus of the overwhelming majority of the Nationally Determined Contributions for the reduction of atmospheric emissions concentrate on the rollout of renewable energy sources (RES) such as solar, wind, geothermal, and hydro energy within the energy mixes of the individual countries. Solar and wind energy are abundant enough to meet the growing energy demand of the planet and, at the same time, mitigate greenhouse gases (GHG) [5].

 

There are, however, also significant problems that correspond with the transition from fossil fuels-based power plants toward systems that rely on solar and wind energy. Both wind and solar energy for electricity generation pose the problem of intermittency due to exogenously conditioned supply volatility. Even if wind and solar energy are available around the year, the energy supply is not sufficient at wind- and/or sun-scarce phases. In summer, solar collectors will produce more energy than on winter days and cloudy days will also interfere with the efficiency of solar collectors. This problem emanates from the lack of storage possibilities for solar energy during daytime and sunny phases throughout the year. This explains the growing interest in the advancement of new technologies and more sustainable, cleaner, and renewable energy sources are the object of investments and scholarly interest. Geothermal and hydropower energy could also serve as base-load fuel. These energy sources are, however, not uniformly available in the large quantities that are required for a base-load power .