A next-generation fusion energy plant could come online in Ontario in as little as five years, marking a major stride forward for a technology long-considered the “holy grail” of the energy transition — and a key potential power source to meet rising provincial electricity demand.

Backed by investors including oil companies and billionaires Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos, technology firms are racing to commercialize fusion and its theoretically limitless source of power as the planet shifts away from CO2-emitting fossil fuels that contribute to global warming.

But fusion has faced significant hurdles for decades and remains a “great scientific and technological challenge,” as consultant McKinsey & Co. said in a 2022 report. While fusion may have reached a turning point, "the next five to ten years will be critical" to overcoming those obstacles, it said.

Last week, the Ontario government and its largest power company, Ontario Power Generation (OPG) signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with Stellarex, a fusion company spun off from Princeton University. The aim is to make the province a frontrunner in the fusion race, with plans to develop an “intermediate-scale” version of a so-called stellarator reactor, along with a centre of excellence and supply chain for fusion energy in the province.

The MOU signed last week at the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), the world’s largest fusion laboratory in France, is also a first for the company-designed stellarator, a device that contains the plasma used in generating power from nuclear fusion reactions.

Fusion — unlike its more volatile cousin, fission — involves fusing rather than splitting an atom to create energy and has none of the risks commonly associated with nuclear power, such as meltdowns and disposal of radioactive waste.

"Ontario is embracing fusion energy as a transformational step-change. Working with OPG and the province, we can help bring the next generation of safe, reliable and affordable decarbonized energy to Ontario,” Stellarex Chairman Richard Carty told Canada’s National Observer.

Ontario aims to capture a "multi-hundred billion dollar" market with development of a #fusion #energy industrial ecosystem centred around a #reactor design from Princeton University spin-off #Stellarex. #nuclear #power

The successful development of fusion could spark a "renaissance" for the sector and help underpin Canada's industrial development and energy security.

The announcement comes as the Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL), a federally backed research agency, urged Canada to catch up with its nuclear nation peers – France, Germany, Japan, United Kingdom and United States – which are advancing their own fusion energy technologies.

"Canada currently provides the least government support for the development of fusion R&D and a fusion industry," CNL said in a draft strategy paper seen by CNO.

“Canada had a robust national fusion programme in the past, but has since then remained active primarily through initiatives by academic and scientific institutions and entrepreneurs,” the paper said, advocating for “far greater investment” from both public and private actors.

The "broad deployment" of domestic and international fusion plants could deliver between $232 billion and $523 billion in economic benefits to Canada by 2100, CNL said, depending on the level of investment and policy support. Major fusion plant projects could create more than 63,000 jobs by 2050.

"With the appropriate strategic investments, Canada could access export markets with a cumulative value of over $147 billion by 2100," the paper said.

However, commercialization of the technology so far has been slow. The first controlled thermonuclear tests by Lyman Spitzer at Princeton University took place during the Cold War, under the code name Project Matterhorn, which led to the development of the concept of a “stellarator” in 1951.

Stellarators emerged in the early 1950s along with Russian-made tokamak reactors as researchers pondered how to create magnetic fields to trap and heat plasma to temperatures necessary for fusion to produce power. The main difference between the two technologies is the placement of the coils that generate the magnetic fields in the reactor core.

In 2022 and 2023, the U.S. government-backed Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories (LLNL) claimed a major breakthrough after generating 2.5 megajoules of energy, or 120 per cent of the 2.1 megajoules used to power the experiment, for a “net energy gain.”

But experts later said it was a success only in pure physics because the experiment did not account for the energy used to fire the laser and did not achieve a net energy gain in engineering terms.

The "magnetic confinement" reactor to be built as part of the Ontario plan is based on modelling validated on the Wendelstein 7-X — the world’s largest fusion stellarator.

Prototype of Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory’s Muse stellarator, on which Stellarex’s first part-scale reactor will be designed. Photo by Mike Zarnstorff / Stellarex

Instead of high-powered lasers, this type of reactor uses massive magnets to hold the plasma in place while it is heated to temperatures hotter than the Sun to create power – an approach many developers believe will make fusion commercially viable for the first time.

Stellarex’s stellarator, a device that uses powerful electromagnets to generate "twisting magnetic fields," is designed to create optimal and stable conditions for fusion reactions and delivery of direct current electricity, the company said.

Stellarex aims to build a part-scale, so-called pre-commercial version of a 600-megawatt reactor that would at full size be able to power some 50,000 homes. The company said it hoped to have a demonstration reactor up and running "within five to seven years."

Dr. Yanwen Zhang, a leading international researcher in the field of nuclear materials at Queen’s University, was guardedly optimistic about the project.

“Although fusion energy is still in development, a prototype commercial stellarator fusion pilot plant will represent a significant leap forward, marking a game-changer in achieving sustainable and environmentally friendly energy solutions,” Zhang said in response to CNO.

The 2022 McKinsey report said technological advances and the need for a flexible zero-carbon power grid have renewed interest in fusion energy, but it also flagged a number of hurdles.

For one, creating the temperature and pressure conditions in the reactor to kick off the reaction and also prevent energy from "leaking out." So far, this has meant that fusion devices consume more energy than they generate. Also, the reactors are "complex machines” outfitted with ultra-high-powered magnets, and large machined components are hard to engineer to withstand the intense temperatures inside the reactor.

"The technology still needs to develop, and there is no guarantee that recent fusion concepts will ultimately produce net energy. Yet this time may be different for the longtime dream of fusion energy," the McKinsey report stated.

Meanwhile, Ontario’s government said the province’s established nuclear supply chain and experienced operators at three fission power plants make it “the place to be when it comes to the growing fusion-related industry.”

Ontario announced in January a $2-billion plan to extend by 30 years the life of its aging fission reactor facility at Pickering, Ont., as Canada’s most populous province plans to meet rising electricity demand in the decades ahead.

The province’s Independent Electricity System Operator has said electricity demand could double by 2050 — Canada’s target year for net-zero emissions — due to increased use of electric vehicles and other clean energy technology.

OPG, a Crown corporation that generates about half of the province’s electricity, has been “watching the progress of fusion-related technology in recent years,” according to Kim Lauritsen, its senior vice-president for enterprise strategy and energy markets.

“As the technology moves toward commercial implementation, this MOU recognizes the role fusion may play as Ontario's demand for clean energy increases over the next several decades,” Lauritsen said in a statement.

Carty said the MOU represents a "key piece of the puzzle" in the commercial deployment of its stellarator design and the fusion sector’s “industrial ecosystem,” which benefits from Ontario’s strong industrial base, skilled workforce and academic institutions.

Stellarex said it has nuclear-sector supply chain network relationships in Ontario and across Canada, as well as MOUs with several national nuclear laboratories and provincial universities.

Updates and corrections

| Corrections policy
June 17, 2024, 07:04 am

This story has been updated to clarify that Stellarex aims to build a part-scale, so-called "pre-commercial" version of its reactor.

June 17, 2024, 08:20 am

This story has been updated with the correct year (2100) in paragraph 12.

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This technology on a commercial scale is a long way off. Meanwhile, I look at all the institutional, commercial, residential buildings and parking lots that could be equipped with solar panels to generate relatively inexpensive energy today, not 10 or 20 years from now. Same for wind power and heat pumps in many regions of the country.

Well that's all true, but come on! The likes of Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos need to keep control over us proles, and that gets harder if anyone can just stick some solar panels and a battery in their house and have power. We NEED highly centralized power plants that cost billions of dollars, that wealthy overlords can own! Won't somebody please think of the poor oligarchs?!

Aw, c'mon. Not all oligarchs are built the same.

I really like the fact that George Soros funded leftie and enviro causes. And that Warren Buffet's son is dedicated to humanitarian relief, even to the point of donning protective gear to visit the wartime front lines in Ukraine and spending significant time in Kharkiv putting himself at risk of being knocked on the head with a 500 kg Russian dumb bomb.

Even Bill Gates has his moments of doing good, mainly because he feels a lot of guilt about his enormous carbon footprint. He actually admits that. He invested in Ambri (liquid metal grid batteries) and Form Energy (iron air grid batteries) that together can address daily peak demands and store power for up to four days, all without lithium and rare materials. But yup, he also dallies with nearly impossible nuclear power fantasies while delivering vaccines to poor countries, with a tax break.

Maybe that's not as egotistical as Bezos's childish fantasies about space tourism and commissioning the largest sailing yacht ever. Cause, y'know, he can. No guilt to find there. Or Zuckerberg's fleet of yachts and Palace of Versailles underground bunker on Maui. How the hell did he get a permit for that thing? Maui has some of the highest zoning restrictions on Earth. Who got paid, and whose personal data did Zuckerberg find the most 'interesting' among Maui planners and politicos?

Moving down to the bottom of the moral ladder among gazillionaires is Musk. He has money and he hired some of the best minds to build a couple of unique and useful items of transportation and communication. But he's a crappy businessman on his own and has treated staff badly on occasion. Then you have the Twitter-X fiasco where he let his true ugly nature surface and take control without the help and advice of hired pros or mature adults. Next to Trump, Musk is one of the fattest lapdogs Putin has ever possessed. If Musk wanted to build a Zuck Bunker somewhere, Putin will probably sell him 200 square km of Russian forests and mountains very cheaply to wait out the Apocalypse. Putin could use the money right about now. Musk better make sure it's out of range from Ukrainian drones, though, for his stupidity about the Ukrainian predicament and favouritism toward little man empire builders and mass murderers.

It seems we can rank oligarchs as either good (if, in some cases, a bit misled), bad or ugly.

.....The "broad deployment" of domestic and international fusion plants could deliver between $232 billion and $523 billion in economic benefits to Canada by 2021,..... Seems the date is a mistake????

Fusion is still at the experimental stage. At scale, it might be useful 50 or 100 years from now. But we need to replace fossil fuels IMMEDIATELY with new forms of energy if we want to avoid catastrophic climate change

Wind, solar and batteries are already too far ahead, in my view, to allow these nuclear dreams to come true. Next in line for centralized grid power would be geothermal. Eavor has a closed loop technology that's under commercialization at present in the US and Germany.

It's pretty easy to see the allure of developing leading edge knowledge and expertise in highly complex energy systems, but we are in a planetary predicament now that requires off-the-shelf timing and affordability to manage a transition to renewables ASAP. The investors in fusion need to know the risks of their long-term quest.

Eavor is based in Alberta and, ironically, is in Danielle Smith's good books. It's doubtful that she'd promote it at home given her anti-renewable energy and pro oil and gas stance.

Eavor's footprint can be quite small and its energy, being sourced with heat from deep rock driving steam turbines, the power plant could be located in urban industrial areas, therein minimizing the distance to municipal loads. Very convenient!

I'm curious as to the purpose of this article.

Fusion remains filled with "ifs", "mays" and equivocation, as was this article and everyone quoted in it.

And I am curious how much overlap there would be between a fission nuclear supply chain and a fusion nuclear supply chain, ergo how much of a competitive advantage Ontario really would have. As soon as the first, viable fusion plant design is commercialized, I imagine it will be licenced for manufacture globally.

Yet more ado about nothing?

The more I learn about the search for Earthbound nuclear fusion in a bottle, the more I see a parallel with the earlier search for a perpetual motion machine. It would be a wonderful thing if only there were some way to make it work, but the physics makes it a never-ending search. "You can't get there from here." There are several insuperable physical problems arising with sustained fusion that no amount of research and development can ever overcome. Even for experimental fusion reactors, contrary to the claim in this article, they produce highly radioactive waste from the reactor vessel itself, a highly stressed pressure vessel that would have a limited life span due to material breakdown from the effects of intense neutron bombardment.

Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists
"Fusion reactors: Not what they’re cracked up to be"