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January 12, 2023

What the fusion energy breakthrough really means

While the benefits of fusion ignition won’t be seen for decades, they will be life-changing from a sustainability standpoint.

In the news

It was hard to miss the recent news that researchers at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, a federal facility in California, achieved one of energy science’s long-sought-after breakthroughs: a fusion reaction that produced a net energy gain.

Since March 2020, most would agree that bad news has outweighed good (pandemic, war, inflation … need we go on?), so the optimism bordering on glee demonstrated by political types is understandable. US President Joe Biden, perhaps emulating John F. Kennedy’s famous call for a moon landing within a decade, said he wants fusion power by 2032.

A brief explainer: The type of nuclear energy used today is derived through the splitting of atoms—fission. By contrast, fusion (which is the energy source of stars), combines, or fuses, atoms. Researchers have been chasing a net-energy-gain fusion reaction for more than half a century because it “creates less radioactive material than fission and has a nearly unlimited fuel supply,” as this post notes.

Is it feasible to commercialize fusion within a decade? Spoiler alert: no. Nevertheless, the potential energy and sustainability benefits of the breakthrough boggle the mind.

The Cognizant take

One problem with the Next Big Thing—any Next Big Thing—is that it makes people feel as if a problem has been solved. Business leaders must avoid this trap where fusion is concerned. The mere reality of a net-energy-gain reaction is not an end, but a beginning. It’s another arrow in the sustainability quiver, which we cover extensively here.

Companies that have only recently begun focusing on reducing the carbon footprint of their products, processes and facilities must continue doing so, not only to gain competitive advantage but also to ensure resilience.

There are pragmatic reasons, as well. Many sources of greenhouse gas emissions won’t be impacted by fusion ignition because they aren’t related to electricity: fertilizers, methane from cattle in meat and dairy production, the burning of fossil fuels in transportation and manufacturing, and on and on. So, while the world needs 100% clean electricity, it also needs to electrify more energy needs; otherwise, these other factors will continue increasing CO2 equivalent levels in the atmosphere.

Additionally, most estimates point to fusion being commercially available in the second half of this century (some private companies are more optimistic, as you’d expect). What that means is we will need to have achieved net zero before fusion becomes commercially available. So, while fusion is highly promising in terms of making sustainable economic prosperity possible in a net zero world, it’s unlikely to help us get to net zero in a prosperous economy.

It’s important to note that the optimism around the fusion breakthrough is warranted. Already, multiple enterprises are working to make fusion power a reality. If you are optimistic about humankind’s ability to safely use this energy, as we are, it’s no exaggeration to draw comparisons to the ability to store and harness electricity. Imagine having available the most efficient and environmentally safe power in the universe—the power of the sun, quite literally. It’s more than another tech breakthrough; it’s a giant step forward for humans and for the earth.

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