In December 2022, a team of 8,000 engineers and scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) in California successfully used lasers to create the star-like conditions of fusion ignition in a lab. Most significantly, this ignition resulted in a net energy gain for the first time; that is, the fusion reaction produced more energy than was put in. Fusion, which is produced by combining atoms to produce energy, is the same reaction which powers our sun. At extreme temperatures and pressures, atoms collide and ‘fuse’, releasing huge amounts of energy as a consequence. Nuclear fusion has been described as the “holy grail” of clean energy, with scientists working on the technology since the 1950s.
Even miniscule amounts of fuel sources potentially have huge amounts of intrinsic energy. The experiment carried out by the National Ignition Facility (NIF) at LLNL used a capsule holding isotopes of hydrogen. Almost 200 of the world’s most powerful lasers were used to heat up the isotopes to about 100 million degrees Celsius. About 2.05 megajoules of energy were generated in the test. Though the amount of energy generated was small, the U.S. Department of Energy declared the test by the NIF as a “historic, first-of-its-kind achievement” and hailed this development in fusion ignition as “a major scientific breakthrough decades in the making that will pave the way for advancements in national defense and the future of clean power.”
Due to its potential to be a safe, clean, cheap, and reliable source of energy, the U.S. has pursued fusion energy for over half a century. However, the pursuit of fusion ignition in the laboratory is one of the most significant scientific challenges ever tackled. “This astonishing scientific advance puts us on the precipice of a future no longer reliant on fossil fuels but instead powered by new clean fusion energy,” U.S. Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer said after the announcement. To be sure, the ability to produce near-limitless clean energy would have profound repercussions for the world’s economy, the environment, and much else besides.
This article examines whether this astonishing scientific advance brings the world any closer to “a future no longer reliant on fossil fuels but instead powered by new clean fusion energy.” In order to reach a determination about the medium-term prospects for this source of technology, the article examines the scale of both the technical and non-technical challenges ahead. It then gives some thought to the hypothetical consequences for global affairs once – or if – this energy technology matures and emerges as a commercial reality.
Hype about a technology can raise excessive expectations about its near-term readiness to perform. Boosters of a particular technology may underplay the myriad technical hurdles and adoption challenges that lay ahead. The resulting over-promise/under-delivery dynamic holds within it technologist Roy Amara’s now famous adage (referred to as Amara’s Law) that “we tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.” Has the successful December 2022 ignition produced excessive expectations about fusion energy?
Even the most ardent proponents of fusion energy, who cite its latent potential to deliver near-limitless zero-carbon energy, concede that it will likely take decades to translate the NIF achievement into a commercially viable power source. For one thing, the NIF is a specially built lab that is incredibly expensive to run. As some technologists are at pains to point out, the lab only pulsed one laser, for a tiny fraction of a second, which was able to produce slightly more energy than went into the experiment. Furthermore, though successful, the test represents just one event of fusion ignition. To be of any practical, real-world use – i.e. to be commercially viable – there would need to be many ignitions per minute and this would require lasers many magnitudes more powerful than the ones housed at the lab. More importantly, the cost of producing these ignitions would have to be a million times cheaper.
But we did learn something from the December 2022 ignition: fusion is possible. Thus, engineers will get set to work in the coming years to figure out how to engineer commercially viable fusion power plants. The task is to scale up the fusion technology so that it provides a safe and cost-effective baseload of energy. The next step then in the innovation process is to move from experimentation to implementation. Moving to this last stage will require enormous investment from the private and public sectors.
Growing enthusiasm about fusion energy, triggered by the ignition achievement last December, might prove crucial in the process of moving the technology into a viable commercial proposition. Technology hype often stimulates interest from purse-string holders at a critical stage in its innovation life cycle. No matter how exciting the latent potential of a technology is, it will not move past the prototype phase unless it receives large injections of investment. Simply, engineers will need to build better magnets, bigger lasers, and stronger materials to withstand the immense temperatures and energies required to contain fusion plasmas in the plants.
Most fusion research has taken plan in publicly funded laboratories like the NIF or the Joint European Torus (JET) in Oxford, UK. More recently, however, such facilities have been complemented by a growing number of privately funded start-ups. These new companies are now trying to speed up the achievement of energy gain at the NIF to produce commercially viable fusion energy.
Fusion energy is also starting to attract private money. The Fusion Industry Association (FIA), a trade body for the sector, estimates that at least $5 billion has already been raised by private fusion companies, much of it in the past 18 months. Funding has come largely from billionaire investors and venture capitalists; there is still little government support to help the private sector grow. But this could be changing. The NIF December breakthrough could lead to further federal support for fusion start-ups in the U.S., with similar policies adopted in the UK, the EU and Japan.
Most public-private sector fusion research has focused on magnetic confinement fusion. This dovetails with the type of fusion energy that Europeans are backing. One example is the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), which is currently under construction in France and earmarked to be ‘switched on’ in 2025. The ITER reactor’s main distinction is the use of a magnetic field to constrain hydrogen into a very concentrated space, while heating up that hydrogen to incredibly high temperatures. The cost of the reactor, which has the European Union as its largest financial backer, is set to cost $20 billion or more (from an original $5 billion estimate). ITER is planned to be the first magnetic fusion device to demonstrate more fusion output than necessary to heat the fuel: 500 megawatts of heat out, at 50 megawatts of heat going in. Given the costs involved and the scale of effort required, the race to mature this potentially world-changing technology is clearly dependent on governments betting on fusion.
A world-changing energy technology?
Conceptually, nuclear fusion energy is highly appealing to industry, environmentalists, poverty reduction advocates, and many others, as it has few apparent downsides. Firstly, the process produces no harmful emissions or waste fuel. Since generating electricity is responsible for about a third of global greenhouse gas emissions, nuclear fusion power plants peppered across countries could provide high-intensity, carbon-free electrical energy. Given the rising alarm over the deterioration of the environment, and the strides being made in laser and magnetic field technology, powerful momentum is gathering behind fusion and the environmental gains it potentially offers.
Moreover, if global access to this limitless source was ensured, it could provide the poorest people on the planet with cheap and reliable electricity, and thus the means to elevate their families and communities out of poverty, while also increasing health and security. But does it represent, as one optimist believes, an exciting and game-changing international quest that will make all of us winners?
Commercial fusion energy technology has the potential to combat the climate crisis and meet the electricity needs of the rest of the world, but it is also well-suited for energy-intensive operations such as desalinization, industrial heat, and mining. It could, in short, revolutionize the energy industry as a whole, making first-mover advantage “a prize to be won.” Rather than emerging as a global public good, fusion energy may bestow on the country able to harness it an unparalleled competitive edge over others.
Energy has long shaped the international system. The realization of viable nuclear fusion energy will not eradicate geopolitical fights over control of energy resources. Commercial fusion would transform the world’s energy system, providing vast benefits to the countries that lead on fusion. Those that rely on hydrocarbons for much of their export revenues could suffer disproportionately. Becoming a leading energy supplier would be a major economic boon for whichever nation first achieves self-sustaining nuclear fusion.
It is little surprise then that the race for nuclear fusion energy has become a key battleground in the competition for techno-security leadership between the great powers. Whilst the vast majority of U.S. investment in nuclear fusion has been private to date, this is shifting to federal government investment. The Inflation Reduction Act, passed in September 2022, earmarked $280 million for “fusion energy science construction and major items of equipment projects.” However, U.S. state backing is dwarfed by Chinese state spending in new fusion testing, as the prospective benefits of nuclear fusion are well understood by its leading scientists. As Professor Peng Xianjue of the Chinese Academy of Engineering Physics was quoted as saying: “Fusion ignition is the jewel in the crown of science and technology in today’s world.”  The level of interest China has in nuclear fusion is reflected in the vast sums it is investing in the technology.
Fusion may make it a little bit easier to be green 20-30 years from now and provide a huge economic boon for those able to lead in this technology area. But not today, and not tomorrow. Its latent potential is real but the world is some way from the dream of the limitless, cheap electricity. Though commercialization of the power source still remains a long way off, the major breakthroughs in recent years have given some hope that it will be attainable within a generation. How rapidly it matures and who gets to ultimately benefit from nuclear fusion will ultimately depend on who is willing to gamble big on a technology that will require enormous resources to make commercially viable.
 Kate Whiting, “Nuclear Fusion’s Future, According to the Woman Leading the Charge,” World Economic Forum, January 19, 2023, http://bitly.ws/BX6V.
 Anthony Cuthbertson, “World-first ‘Super’ Magnet Sparks Nuclear Fusion Breakthrough,” Independent, February 8, 2023, http://bitly.ws/BX76.
 A video of the press conference can be found at: http://bitly.ws/BX7c.
 “Schumer Statement on the University of Rochester’s Laser Lab Contributions in Groundbreaking Fusion Energy Breakthrough,” Charles E. Schumer – United States Senator for New York, December 12, 2022, http://bitly.ws/BX7z.
 On hype and technology, see in particular, Ash Rossiter, “High-energy Laser Weapons: Overpromising Readiness,” Parameters 48, no. 4 (2018): pp. 35-46, https://doi.org/10.55540/0031-1723.3010.
 Quoted in Rodney Brooks, “The Seven Deadly Sins of AI Prediction,” MIT Technology Review, October 6, 2017, http://bitly.ws/BX7W.
 Ian Palmer, “When Will Nuclear Fusion Put Oil and Gas Out of Business,” Forbes, December 18, 2022, http://bitly.ws/BX8e.
 Matt Orsagh, “Nuclear Fusion Is a Reality! Do Not Invest in Nuclear Fusion,” Green Biz, January 12, 2023, http://bitly.ws/BX8w.
 On the three distinct yet often overlapping phases of innovation, see Thomas G. Mahnken, “Uncovering Foreign Military Innovation,” Journal of Strategic Studies 22, no. 4 (1999): pp. 26–54, https://doi.org/10.1080/01402399908437768.
 Ozgur Dedehayir and Martin Steinert, “The Hype Cycle Model: A Review and Future Directions,” Technological Forecasting and Social Change 108 (2016): pp. 28-41, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.techfore.2016.04.005.
 Jess Thomson, “When Can We Expect Nuclear Fusion?” Newsweek, January 13, 2023, http://bitly.ws/BX9b.
 UK Atomic Energy Agency, “New Experiments for Fusion Energy Record Breaker JET,” September 26, 2022, http://bitly.ws/BX9t.
 Tom Wilson, “Fusion Energy Breakthrough Sparks Calls for More Government Backing,” Financial Times, February 7, 2023, http://bitly.ws/BX9C.
 Todd Gillespie, “UK Aims to Build Prototype Fusion Plant for Near-Limitless Power,” Bloomberg, February 6, 2023, http://bitly.ws/BX9H.
 Out of the 35 start-ups identified by the FIA trade body, at least two-thirds are working on magnetic confinement fusion.
 It is funded mainly by the European Union (45.6%), with the remainder shared equally by China, India, Japan, Korea, Russia and the USA (9.1% each).
 Arthur Turrell, The Star Builders: Nuclear Fusion and the Race to Power the Planet (New York: Scribner, 2021).
 Sage Miller, “The Geopolitics of Nuclear Fusion,” Georgetown Security Studies Review, February 5, 2023, http://bitly.ws/BXa2.
 Tai Ming Cheung and Thomas G. Mahnken, “The Grand Race for Techno-Security Leadership,” War on the Rocks, August 31, 2022, http://bitly.ws/BXab.
 U.S. Library of Congress, “H.R.5376 – Inflation Reduction Act of 2022,” http://bitly.ws/BYst.
 Baba Tamim, “China to Produce Clean Energy with Nuclear Fusion by 2028, Top Weapons Expert Claims,” Interesting Engineering, September 15, 2022, http://bitly.ws/BXaj.
 Ling Xin, “Breakthrough in China’s Artificial Sun Project Could Lead to More Stable Fusion Energy: International Team,” South China Morning Post, January 11, 2023, http://bitly.ws/BXaE.