© Financial Times

This is an audio transcript of the Tech Tonic podcast: ‘Climate tech to save the planet — star power’

Pilita Clark
Right now as I speak, there are people looking up at the night sky thinking, what if we could just bottle the power of the stars? What if that is the answer to climate change? Something completely new. A power source we haven’t yet harnessed.

Interstellar clip
We’ve always defined ourselves by the ability to overcome the impossible.

Pilita Clark
Something like the Hollywood sci-fi blockbuster Interstellar, where a spaceship called Endurance uses star power to travel through space.

Interstellar clip
Perhaps we’ve just forgotten that we’re still pioneers. That we’ve barely begun. And that our greatest accomplishments cannot be behind us.

Pilita Clark
Well, it turns out the tech imagined in that film, Interstellar, wasn’t entirely science fiction. Because bottling the power of the stars is exactly the sort of moonshot tech that some people say could get us out of the fossil fuel mess we’ve created on planet Earth. It’s an energy source called nuclear fusion.

Melanie Windridge
Fusion is the reaction that’s powering the stars. So fusion is happening out there in space all the time. It’s the ultimate energy source of the universe.

Pilita Clark
Dr Melanie Windridge is a fusion scientist. Fusion is different to nuclear fission. That’s the reaction that powers conventional nuclear power stations today. Fusion is when small particles come together to make bigger ones. And when it happens, it produces a massive amount of energy. It’s why stars like the sun produce heat and light.

Melanie Windridge
So the sun is essentially a big ball of hydrogen. Hydrogen comes together to make helium, and that releases a lot of energy.

Pilita Clark
For decades, scientists have been wondering if it’s possible to recreate the nuclear fusion happening in the sun here on Earth. Take some hydrogen, force it together until it fuses to make helium and harvest the energy.

Melanie Windridge
It’s been enticing scientists since they first figured out what was causing the sun to shine over 100 years ago. Because they realised that if we could do this, we’d have a very potent energy source, one that produces no greenhouse gases, produces no long live radioactive waste. It’s, it’s safe, abundant energy. Just one kilogramme of fusion fuel produces as much energy as 10mn kilogrammes of fossil fuels. So it’s a very exciting energy source if we could harness it on Earth.

Pilita Clark
The people building these machines say they’re getting really close to perfecting the technology. So is the dream of nuclear fusion really about to become a reality, and can it solve our climate change problem for good?

[MUSIC PLAYING] 

This is Tech Tonic from the Financial Times. I’m Pilita Clark. In this season of the podcast, we’ve been asking if new technologies can help us solve the problem of carbon emissions and climate change. Can climate tech save the world? In this episode, the near miracle of fusion power.

The problem with trying to recreate the fusion reaction happening in the sun here on earth is that it’s really, really hard.

Melanie Windridge
It’s so hard to do because essentially you need to make a little star. You need to get the conditions of stars on earth.

Pilita Clark
Melanie Windridge has been working in fusion for 20 years. She now runs a consultancy called Fusion Energy Insights.

Melanie Windridge
It takes a lot of energy to squash particles together like that. But the sun has the right conditions because the sun is huge and it has this huge gravitational force just pulling everything into the centre, which increases the pressure and the temperature down there. So you’ve got temperatures of about 15mn degrees in the centre of the sun. But of course, we need to do things differently when we’re on earth because we don’t have that huge gravitational force.

Pilita Clark
So how do you make hydrogen fuse into helium without the extreme pressures found in the centre of the sun? Scientists realised that if they made the hydrogen really hot, ten times hotter than the sun, they could get fusion to happen without the pressure. But the problem with heating up hydrogen to 150mnC is that at that mind-bending temperature, it stops being a gas and turns into something called plasma. And as well as being too hot to handle, plasma behaves in really weird ways.

Melanie Windridge
It’s very dynamic and chaotic and a kind of soup of charged particles. So fusion is all about plasma physics and understanding plasma and figuring out a way to hold your unstable, wily plasma stable enough for long enough that the fusion reactions will occur, and that’s the big challenge of fusion.

Pilita Clark
So if you want to create a nuclear fusion power station, first you need to heat up hydrogen to more than 100mn degrees and find a way of keeping hold of the super hot hydrogen plasma to allow fusion to happen. That is a big scientific and engineering challenge. But after decades of research, there are scientists out there who have managed to do it. To find out how, I took a train to a place outside Oxford in the UK where there’s an anonymous looking collection of buildings surrounded by nice, tidy lawns and quiet roads. It looks like any suburban business park. To be honest, it’s the opposite of exciting. But inside one of these buildings is one of the most powerful fusion machines in the world.

Ian Chapman
(Industrial sounds) So it’s a big, fat doughnut. Imagine an American doughnut with a big pore in the middle, big hole in the middle. And that big hole in the middle is where the magnets go. But the fuel, type of hydrogen gas, sits in that doughnut shape. So that’s what you can see in front of you where the fuel would be.

Pilita Clark
Professor Ian Chapman is the head of the UK’s Atomic Energy Authority, and he runs this experimental fusion reactor. It’s called the Joint European Torus or JET. JET’s about the size of a small house. It’s shaped like a doughnut, and it uses powerful electromagnets to suspend the super hot hydrogen plasma in a vacuum, keeping it stable and away from the walls of the machine.

Ian Chapman
That would be a ball of gas filling this chamber sort of four metres up about a couple of metres across. And we make that really hot. We put a current through that gas, turn it into this plasma, and then it expands to fill the volume. And as fusion happens, it produces neutrons and helium. So everywhere around us, the neutrons are going. And when we get to power plants, we capture those neutrons. We have a very big, thick blanket around the outside. And as the neutrons pass through that blanket, they heat up. And it’s a boiling kettle from that point, you know, creating steam and a steam turns a turbine.

Pilita Clark
OK, so, so you’ve got your hydrogen gas in. You’ve run the current through to heat it up to extraordinary temperatures, much higher than the sun. And in fact, JET, when it’s going, is what, it’s the hottest temperature on earth? Oh no, in the solar system.

Ian Chapman
In the solar system, hotter than the sun, right? The hottest place in the solar system today. I can’t, I can’t say the universe, I don’t know. But within our solar system.

Pilita Clark
That’s kind of incredible, isn’t it?

So JET’s been around since the 1980s. It’s been at the centre of European efforts to develop fusion power, and despite its age, it’s still at the cutting edge of what’s possible in fusion today. Last year it broke its own world record for the amount of energy produced by a fusion machine. Here’s what that sounded like.

(Countdown . . . fusion sound)

[MUSIC PLAYING] 

Pilita Clark

That is 5 seconds of fusion producing 59 mega joules of energy. That’s more than anyone has ever produced from fusion, but it’s not a lot of energy. In fact, it’s only enough to boil about 60 kettles. And the real problem is that it takes a huge amount of energy to get the reaction going in the first place.

That current that you put through, I mean, how much electricity do you need to use to create that current?

Ian Chapman
So today, when we do an experiment in JET, we take a lot of power off the grid. So a huge amount of energy in and very little out. The challenge for going to the next phase is that it’s about net zero. So the electric you put in is roughly the power you get out. And then a power station that comes after that is much more power out then you put in the first place.

Pilita Clark
This really underlines the current state of play when it comes to nuclear fusion. Plenty of researchers have been able to make the reaction happen, but they’ve only been able to produce small amounts of energy so far. And no one, not one person in the history of fusion research stretching back to the 1950s, has been able to get more energy out of a fusion reaction than they put in. So this is the next big challenge for people working in nuclear fusion today, how to get past that break even point and build a fusion machine that makes more energy than it uses, a machine that produces net energy. The JET reactor won’t be able to do that. Chapman says one of the problems with reactors like JET is they can’t run the fusion reaction for long enough because the huge magnets they use start to overheat. But new reactors being built today will have better magnets made of new superconducting materials. They’re building a fusion reactor with these sorts of superconducting magnets right now in the south of France. It’s a massive $20bn international project called ITER.

ITER advertisement
Thirty metres in diameter and nearly as many in height, the ITER tokamak is a marvel of engineering. ITER will demonstrate the scientific and technical feasibility of fusion power.

Pilita Clark
When it gets going in a few years time, the expectation is that ITER will finally be able to reach that break even point.

OK, so after these decades of work, how close is the fusion industry to reaching net energy?

Ian Chapman
I think we’ll do that in the next decade. We keep breaking world records. And ITER is really coming. But you couple that with the imperative to actually have a carbon-free energy source. The fact that the world, frankly, — in the last few years and it’s really the last few years, not decades — has woken up to the fact that climate change is real and happening to us and we have to do something about it. You’re now seeing imperative, an impetus as well as scientific progress. And those two things are uniting.

Pilita Clark
What’s also changed is that JET’s world record is not the only big advance in fusion seen in the last 18 months. Other big government-funded fusion programmes have also made breakthroughs. A reactor in China recently ran a fusion reaction at 120mn degrees for more than a minute and a half. That’s a really long time in the world of fusion. And last year, a US government-backed project got the closest anyone has to producing net energy with a fusion system that uses lasers instead of magnets.

(Countdown . . . fusion sound)

Pilita Clark
But still, if we haven’t even built a machine that makes more energy than it uses yet, how long is it going to be until there are actual fusion power stations? Chapman agrees that the break even point is just a milestone on a much longer journey.

Ian Chapman
First of all, you’ve got to show a thermal gain so you get more thermal power out than thermal power put in. Within ten years we will get a thermal gain. But that’s not electricity that the consumer can buy. There’s still a challenge of building power plants and then building power plants on the scale that actually has impact on the energy industry, and that will take many years after that.

Pilita Clark
The UK is hoping to get a working demonstration power plant by around 2040. Chapman says we could see it supplying a bit of electricity to the grid by maybe 2050. But the trouble is we need to nearly half global carbon emissions by 2030 and bring them down to virtually zero by 2050. To have any hope of keeping global warming to 1.5 degrees. So if Chapman’s right, it’s hard to see fusion doing much to help. But the excitement about fusion energy is not limited to big government research projects. Private companies, backed by billions of dollars of investment, are also racing to develop fusion power. And they’re a lot more optimistic about when they can get a working fusion power station up and running. Tom Wilson writes about the energy industry for the Financial Times.

Tom Wilson
In the last five years, we’ve seen a flood of private capital into the private sector, and we’ve seen a plethora of private fusion start-ups pop up around the world.

Pilita Clark
Tom says it’s concerns about climate change that have prompted investors to start pumping money into the private fusion industry.

Tom Wilson
There’s a real hope in the sector that private money can just do things quicker and faster and maybe achieve fusion. So achieve net energy gain from the fusion experiment. But most importantly, having done that, commercialise that to say, how would I build a commercially viable power plant?

Pilita Clark
Tech investors, including Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates’s as Clean Energy Innovation Fund, are backing fusion companies that each take slightly different approaches to fusion. But they all share one aim to create the first commercial fusion reactor.

Give me the elevator pitch for the dream of nuclear fusion.

Michl Binderbauer
Gosh, that’s a, that’s a big one. It’s a big dream. The dream is basically to really become the power source of the future, right? It’s, when working, will be the end of scarcity.

Pilita Clark
Michl Binderbauer is chief executive of TAE Technologies. His company is developing a fusion reactor that uses a different mix of fuels to older reactor designs. His company has raised more than $1bn from investors, including the tech giant Google. But like everybody else in fusion, TAE hasn’t managed to produce net energy yet. But Binderbauer is confident it can be the first to do it.

Michl Binderbauer
I certainly believe that the private sector will get there first. I think private industry has learnt to work extremely efficiently at problems. You want to be efficient, you want to be a good steward of the capital and your other resources and time in particular. And I think when you ask now, will TAE be first, I would say, I certainly think we will. But even if we were second, the question is not just to get to net energy, right? But to make then an efficient power plant. In that practical constraint put on top of just beyond net energy, I’m absolutely certain TAE will be first.

Pilita Clark
Tell me, when do you expect TAE will be supplying electricity to the grid?

Michl Binderbauer
We think we can deliver that by about mid-decade and that’s followed by . . . 

Pilita Clark
 . . . Around 2025.

Michl Binderbauer
Yeah. Around 2025. And then we’re building a what I call sort of prototype machine, basically a prototype power plant that will feed net electricity to the great, we call this machine today, Da Vinci. And we think we will be able to bring that connected to the grid somewhere towards the end of the decade.

Pilita Clark
Delivering electricity to the grid by around 2030.

Michl Binderbauer
Correct.

Pilita Clark
If they’re right, fusion could help cut carbon emissions before 2050. But here’s the thing about fusion. It’s been hyped as the solution to all our energy needs for decades.

News clip
Over 2,000 scientists work on fusion in 50 laboratories worldwide.

Pilita Clark
It’s always been a technology that scientists say is possible. It’s just a matter of time.

News clip
So far, their efforts have cost $1bn and a quarter of a century.

Pilita Clark
And yet we’re still waiting. So what makes this wave of enthusiasm for fusion energy any different to the ones we’ve had before? Binderbauer has been working in fusion since the 90s, and he says this time it really is different.

Michl Binderbauer
I think what’s happened in the last decade in particular, not just have we had 50 years to digest science, but now we have tools available that just didn’t exist. What you now see is the confluence of scientific understanding, but the technological capability to meet up with the challenges this requires. Then you look at the actual results that come out, right? There is consistent success now at or almost at the point where you need to beat it to get the net energy out. So I think the times are ripe, the solutions are needed, and we have technology and scientific insights to do that. And that, I think, consolidated, creates the momentum now to sort of final summit assault is upon us.

Pilita Clark
There’s no doubt that if fusion energy was to become a reality, it could be a game changer for our fight against climate change. What’s not to like? Virtually limitless energy. No CO₂ emissions, no long-lasting nuclear waste problem or safety hazards associated with today’s nuclear fission reactors. But the harsh reality is it’s still right now just a good idea. In the computing world, they’d call this vapourware — software that’s advertised to the public but hasn’t actually been made yet and might never be released. And even if fusion does become a reality, whether it will have any impact on our current fight to reduce carbon emissions depends on whether you believe the ambitious targets set by the fusion companies. Here’s the FT’s Tom Wilson again.

Tom Wilson
In order for fusion energy to play a real role in achieving that net zero 2050 target, we’re going to have to see net energy gain. I would say this decade, in the next eight years. If we’re still struggling to see net energy gain by 2032, 2033, 2035, really the, you’re running out of time before 2050. And so I think you might start to see some of the enthusiasm and cash drain away. I mean, I still think best-case scenario is one of these private fusion companies delivers on the timeline that they put in place. And therefore, you’ve got fusion power coming on the grid sooner. It’s probably not going to be enough to keep warming below two degrees. I mean, with the latest science, maybe nothing is going to be sufficient to keep warming below that. But I mean, I still, I still think there’s a possibility that you see fusion energy as a part of the global energy mix in the 2040s.

Pilita Clark
Professor Ian Chapman, who runs the JET facility in the UK, has devoted his career to the dream of nuclear fusion. He agrees that when it comes to cutting emissions right now, fusion is not going to help us. It just won’t be ready in time. But he thinks fusion could have an important role to play in how we manage our emissions after that.

When it comes to climate change, we know that we have to nearly half of global emissions by roughly 2030 and bring them down to net zero by 2050. It sounds to me as though fusion is not going to be able to have any impact whatsoever on that 2030 deadline. Possibly it might by 2050. Is that fair?

Ian Chapman
Yeah, that’s absolutely fair. So it definitely makes no difference by 2030. It could, with a trailing wind and a bigger risk appetite and more money, begin to produce a bit by 2050. But that doesn’t mean it’s irrelevant, by the way, because if, if we get anywhere close to those targets, which I don’t think we’re on a track to do so, even if we did, it will be things which are not long-term solutions like carbon capture. So fusion was still going to play a huge role in displacing those short-term fixes, which are just sticking plasters, long-term. And if we don’t have a long-term solution, we don’t have a solution.

Pilita Clark
Is there a chance that you could keep working and, you know, you could keep basically doing all of this research and all of this progress and yet never actually get to the point where fusion can be powering an electricity grid?

Ian Chapman
That is a chance. Yeah. What we’re doing is tough. And even if we have solutions, it doesn’t mean that they’re commercially viable. But the price is so enormous, it is absolutely worth trying. You know, the imperative to address climate change on a global scale is just, is existential. We should throw everything at it and do as much of everything. Thing that really annoys me in the energy industry is internal bickering about who has the best product. I mean, it’s madness to compare fusion with wind, with carbon capture. Do it all, and do more of it and do it faster.

Pilita Clark
Although, I mean, there are finite resources, particularly when it comes to public funding so . . . No? You’re shaking your head . . .

Ian Chapman
I fundamentally disagree with the notion that we’re anywhere near finite resources. You know, if you want a planet that’s going to work and actually be liveable and not see mass migration of people and complete devastation of our way of life, we actually have to address this. And at the moment, we spend orders of magnitude less money than we should do on this problem because it’s so serious. ITER ticket price, roughly, roughly 20bn. This country spent more than that on test and trace programme on Covid in one year, right? This country can easily mobilise tens of billions. The private market can easily mobilise capital like that. But that question of when’s fusion going to happen? I answer that by saying, how much are you prepared to spend and how much risk are you prepared to take? Because if you’re prepared to take risk, do things in parallel, do things that might not work and spend money which might not go anywhere, then for sure, fusion will happen quicker.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Pilita Clark
In the next episode of Tech Tonic, the last in this series on climate tech, I’ll be asking if all the money and energy going into new green technology to tackle climate change is really worth it? Or do we have all the technology we need right now?

Marc Jacobson
The biggest problem we’re facing, I think, is that we have too many competing proposals, like from Bill Gates and others who are pushing continuations of fossil fuels under the guise of doing something good.

Pilita Clark
You’ve been listening to Tech Tonic from the Financial Times with me, Pilita Clark. Credits for this episode go to our senior producer Edwin Lane, producer Josh Gabert-Doyon and executive producer Manuela Saragosa, with production assistance from Fiona Symon and Leo Schick. Our sound engineers are Samantha Giovinco and Breen Turner, with original scoring by Metaphor Music. Cheryl Brumley the FT’s head of audio.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022. All rights reserved.
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