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White House forges deals with fusion pioneers

By Peter Behr | 06/07/2024 06:37 AM EDT

Technology startups are designing pilot projects to demonstrate the commercial viability of fusion power.

Nuclear fusion power generator concept image

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After a year of challenging negotiations, the Department of Energy has reached grant agreements with eight pioneering fusion technology companies seeking to prove that the energy of the stars can be delivered to the nation’s power grid.

The grants are the first round in a congressionally authorized Milestone-Based Fusion Development Program. The companies will share an initial $46 million to support their competing campaigns to develop pilot plants that could demonstrate the commercial viability of fusion reactors.

Fusion reactors promise to produce carbon-free power by slamming hydrogen atoms together under enormous heat and pressure, without the threatening radiation that today’s fission reactors must manage.

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The agreements were announced at a conference Thursday at the White House that brought government and private-sector fusion experts together to mark the second anniversary of President Joe Biden’s “Decadal Vision” commitment to developing fusion power. The Biden administration’s big show of support for a source of clean power that could have decades to go — one that requires extraordinary scientific progress — is partly targeted at members of Congress who control future funding.

“We have had remarkable breakthroughs in fusion research,” DOE Deputy Secretary David Turk told the meeting.

“We need to build on that momentum,” Turk said, citing DOE’s publication of a new long-term fusion strategy document issued Thursday. “But it doesn’t just happen on its own. … We need to have that urgency, that focus to get things done as quickly as we possibly can.”

The companies in the program are relative newcomers in the energy industry, with fractions of capital compared to the sector’s giants. But many have strong connections with a widespread research and scientific community that has been pursuing fusion science for a half-century. The fusion startups jumped into action after high-level studies for DOE urged support for development of fusion pilot plants to keep the U.S. in competition with China and other national fusion programs. Scientists project fusion could be a key energy technology by midcentury.

As part of the rollout of agreements Thursday, DOE also announced a new program called the Fusion Innovation Research Engine, which aims to form information hubs that can bridge gaps between laboratory breakthroughs and commercial fusion development. Part of the aim is also to bolster U.S.-based manufacturing and supply chains.

Congress authorized nearly $500 million over five years for the milestone program. Only $90 million has been appropriated, however, noted Andrew Holland, chief executive of the Fusion Industry Association.

“We definitely need more money. You’re not going to get to fusion pilot plants with $90 million. You won’t even get integrated designs,” Holland said.

“This program will work better if we can approach 50-50 public and private support,” said a senior government official, who agreed to comment on the program if not named. “The support is not even at 10 percent,” based on the companies’ budgets, the official added.

Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.)., co-chair of the bipartisan Congressional Fusion Energy Caucus, told the Thursday conference, “We’re fighting for as much money as possible. We will do our damnedest.”

Intellectual property

To reach agreements, DOE and the eight companies had to resolve how much access the federal government would get to the companies’ patented inventions and trade secrets, the intellectual property that is an essential asset it offers investors.

The senior government official said the issue wasn’t necessarily who owned the IP. It was the companies. It was about government access to the technology.

The technology span the most promising approaches for achieving fusion power. “We hope to see as many successful designs as the market will bear,” the official said.

The eight companies range in size from Commonwealth Fusion Systems in Devens, Massachusetts, which had declared around $2 billion in investment backing in the 2023 survey by the Fusion Industry Association, to Xcimer Energy, with $12 million in declared capital, according to the FIA report.

“I can only speak for my company,” said Matt Miles, senior vice president of Type One Energy, one of the eight milestone grant recipients. “We were able to negotiate through our differences,” he told E&E News. “Fortunately, we were able to reason with them and move them more toward our position, really a position that aligned with a private company that is taking the risk. It is only after we prove we meet the milestones that we get the funding.”

The negotiations did not slow the research, Miles said. “We’re on track to meet our first milestones,” he added. “We kept going. We felt pretty confident we would reach an agreement [with DOE],” he said, and its responsibilities to its investors kept it on track.

In addition to the pilot plant it is designing for the Milestone program, Type One is also building a prototype fusion machine called “Infinity One” at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s fossil plant in Clinton, Tennessee. The partnership also includes DOE’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, one of many such alliances on fusion science involving DOE’s laboratories.