The US will present the first international strategy to commercialize nuclear fusion power at the upcoming UN climate summit in Dubai, US special envoy for climate change John Kerry said on Monday.
Fusion could have a significant advantage over today's nuclear fission plants that split atoms in that it produces no long-lived radioactive waste. If successfully developed, it could also provide a cheap source of carbon-free electricity.
The former secretary of state will announce his plan for the strategy, which calls for enhanced cooperation with other countries to accelerate commercialization, at a tour of fusion company Commonwealth Fusion Systems near Boston. The United Kingdom and the United States signed a merger cooperation agreement on November 8.
Fusion, the process that powers the sun and stars to generate electricity, can be replicated on Earth with heat and pressure using lasers or magnets to crush two light atoms into a denser one, releasing large amounts of energy.
In August, scientists using laser beams at a national laboratory in California repeated a breakthrough fusion breakthrough called ignition where for a moment the amount of energy coming from the fusion reaction exceeded that concentrated on the target.
Kerry, who as a US senator more than a decade ago sponsored legislation that would fund fusion research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, will tour the Commonwealth with Claudio Descalzi, chief executive of Italian energy company Eni. Eni is working on four fusion research partnerships in Italy and the US, including one with the Commonwealth.
“I will have much more to say about the United States' vision for international partnerships for an inclusive energy future at Cop28,” Kerry said in a statement.
Decades of federal investment are turning fusion from an experiment into an “emerging climate solution,” he added.
But there are obstacles to producing electricity from fusion. The energy output of last year's fusion experiment at the US National Ignition Facility was only about 0.5 percent of the energy used to fire the lasers, some scientists estimate.
Scientists have so far only come across scattered instances of ignition, not the many continuous ignition events per minute required to generate electricity to power homes and industries.
There are also regulatory, construction and spatial barriers to creating new fleets of power plants to replace parts of existing energy systems.
Some critics say fusion will be too expensive and too time-consuming to develop to help fight climate change in the near future.
A source familiar with the planned announcement said the fusion strategy would be a framework setting out plans for global development of the technology that could win support from international partners.
The source said Cop28, which runs from November 30 to December 12, will be “the trigger for international cooperation” on nuclear fusion, which Kerry will tout as “a climate solution, not as a scientific experiment”.
Despite what scientists say is an urgent need for an energy transition to combat climate change, investment has slowed in many parts of the clean energy business this year due to economic uncertainty and inflation.
In 2023, international fusion companies have raised about $1.4 billion in investment for a total of about $6.21 billion in mostly private money, the Fusion Industry Association (FIA) said, up from about $2.83 billion in new investment last year .
However, the number of companies making investments rose to 43 from 33, covering a dozen countries, according to the FIA, including the US, where Commonwealth is one of about 25 companies. Other countries pursuing fusion include Australia, China, Germany, Japan and the United Kingdom.
Of the two main types of fusion, one uses a laser to focus energy on a gold pellet containing hydrogen.
The other, which Commonwealth and several other companies are focusing on, uses powerful magnets to trap plasma or hydrogen gas that is heated to about 100 million degrees Fahrenheit (55 million degrees Celsius) until the atoms fuse.