The idea first lit up Dennis Whyte when he was in high school, in the remote reaches of Saskatchewan, Canada, in the 1980s. He wrote a term paper on how scientists were trying to harness fusion (the physical effect that fuels the stars) in wondrously efficient power plants on Earth. This is the ultimate clean-energy dream. It would provide massive amounts of clean electricity, with no greenhouse gases or air pollution. It would do it on a constant basis, unlike solar and wind. Whatever waste it created would be easily manageable, unlike today’s nuclear power plants. And fuel would be limitless. One of the main ingredients needed for fusion is abundant in water. Just one little gram of hydrogen fuel for a fusion reactor would provide as much power as 10 tons of coal.
Whyte got an A on that paper, but his physics teacher also wrote: “It’s too complicated.” That comment, Whyte says with a hearty laugh, “was sort of a harbinger of things to come.”
Indeed, over the next few decades, as Whyte mastered the finicky physics that fusion power would require and became a professor at MIT, the concept seemingly got no closer to becoming reality. It’s not that the science was shaky: It’s that reliably bottling up miniature stars, inside complex machines on Earth, demands otherworldly amounts of patience, not to mention billions and billions of dollars. Researchers, like Whyte, knew all too well the sardonic joke about their work: fusion is the energy source of the future, and it always will be.
That line took on an especially bitter edge one day in 2012, when the U.S. Department of Energy announced it would eliminate funding for MIT’s experimental fusion reactor. Whyte was angry about the suddenness of the news. “It was absolutely absurd — you can put that in your article — fucking absurd that happened with a program that was acknowledged to be excellent.” But above all, he was dismayed. Global warming was bearing down year after year, yet this idea that could save civilization was losing what little momentum it had.
So Whyte thought about giving up. He looked for other things to focus on, “stuff that wasn’t as exciting, quite frankly,” but stuff that would be achievable. “Everyone understands delays in projects, and science hurdles you’ve got to overcome, but I saw fusion energy being used for something accelerating away from us,” he says. “You start getting pretty dejected when you realize, in your professional career, you’re never going to see this happen.”
As it turned out, Whyte never really walked away. Instead, he and his colleagues and graduate students at MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center figured out a new angle. And last winter, MIT declared that Whyte’s lab had a fundamentally new approach to fusion and threw its weight behind their plan with an unusually public bet, spinning out a company to capitalize on it. An Italian oil company and private investors — including a firm funded by Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos — put at least $75 million into the company, known as Commonwealth Fusion Systems [CFS]. The startup intends to demonstrate the workings of fusion power by 2025.
The recent progress is remarkable, says the founder of one startup developing fusion power. “The world has been waiting for fusion for a long time.”
Real, live, economically viable power plants could then follow in the 2030s. No joke. When I ask Whyte, who is 54, to compare his level of optimism now to any other point in his career, he says, simply: “It is at the maximum.”
But it’s not just MIT. At least 10 other startups also are trying new approaches to fusion power. All of them contend that it’s no longer a tantalizingly tricky science experiment, and is becoming a matter of engineering. If even just one of these ventures can pull it off, the energy source of the future is closer than it seems.
“It’s remarkable,” says David Kingham, executive vice chairman of Tokamak Energy, a British company whose goal is to put fusion power on the grid by 2030. “The world has been waiting for fusion for a long time.”