Fusion to Be Commercialised Thirty Years Faster than Expected - Civil Society's Role

On May 2 2016, Professor Jaeyoung Park  , president of the world's leading commercial fusion company, EMC2, delivered a special lecture at Khon Kaen University, hosted by the College of Local Administration in association with the Office of the Vice President for Research and Technology Transfer. The special lecture's topic was on magnetic-electrostatic confinement, or 'polywell' fusion energy technology, where EMC2 owns key intellectual property and patents.

Professor Jaeyoung Park  , President of EMC2

 

EMC2 plans to complete the final scientific proof of principle for the polywell technology around 2019-2020, using magnetic confinement to trap a plasma superheated to 50 million degrees. This will cost approximately 30 million USD, and EMC2 is presently seeking venture funding from entities such as venture capitalists, sovereign wealth funds, as well as support from academic institutions.

It will then create a prototype commercial net energy gain fusion reactor, with an estimated cost of 300m USD, a fraction of the cost of a large coal power plant. This would change the world's timetable for commercial fusion, with a first generation commercial fusion reactor being developed by 2030 and then mass production and commercialisation of the technology in the 2030's. This is approximately 30 years faster than expected under the first world government-driven International Thermonuclear Energy Reactor (ITER) project. It would also be tens of billions of dollars cheaper.

However, neither the market nor the world's governments are presently ready for a commercial fusion reactor in the 2030's. One effect of commercial fusion would be to drive the price of coal and oil even lower, meaning developing countries, such as South American countries which export oil and those countries which export coal, such as Indonesia, may suffer disruptive shocks to their economies.

One way to overcome this problem would be for the G77, which except for China and India has no formal recognised global role in fusion energy development, to invest in a commercial fusion company. The result would be a partnership with the first world which could create a global sovereign wealth fund for G77 companies.

Thus, as well as a role for first world academic and fusion energy collaborations, EMC2 sees a role for countries in transition and especially regional groupings such as ASEAN and the G77. Firstly, ASEAN and the G77 will want to be consumers of clean energy. Secondly, EMC2 pointed out that Thailand has an advanced energy manufacturing capacity, meaning it can participate in the commercialisation of fusion too, given its talent pool and infrastructure. Energy commodities will be a core economic driver for these countries because they will be more greatly affected by global climate change than first world countries.

Professor Park pointed out that, within a decade, there will be a need for ASEAN and the G77 to develop an economic model which includes fusion in the next decade - thus, they will have to be involved in it. There also needs to be leadership from ASEAN and the G77 to give them a voice given the Paris Agreement on reducing the impact of global warming by keeping the world to a 2 degrees Celsius over the baseline by 2030. ASEAN and the G77 need to monitor and enforce the commitment made by the first world to transfer energy technology to the developing world and Global South.

EMC2 worked under the US Navy for 20 years and received millions of dollars in funding due to the US Navy's energy requirements. However, it has a preference at this stage to work with civilian organisations such as foreign universities and governments, and EMC2 has an understanding with the US Government to be able to talk to non-US entities. This is because polywell fusion technology is not related to a weapons technology. This in principle means the product can get an export license and will be available to global society except for a few countries. EMC2's understanding is that the UN Paris Agreement provides a framework for this kind of arrangement.

EMS2's position is that fusion technology should be shared as much as possible. As a commercial company, EMC2's position is that commercial fusion needs IP protection. However, developing nations should be able to learn about it and adopt it if they choose to do so. However, knowledge transfer has to be arranged for developing nations to evaluate and adopt and involve themselves in building knowledge. EMC2's position is that it generally favours sharing knowledge and collaborating, and that developing countries and countries in transition may need to build a good understanding of fusion in order to be able to adopt it.

EMC2 made a major breakthrough in polywell technology in 2013, independently verified by an independent US Navy technical report, one which could accelerate the timetable for commercial fusion, bringing it as close at the 2030's. However, EMC2 is not as well known as other companies developing fusion, such as Tri Alpha Energy, backed by US venture capitalists; General Fusion, backed by the Canadian and Malaysian governments, and Lockheed Martin, the world's largest military company.

EMC2 had not shared its result until 2014 because of its previous relationship with the US Navy. Starting in late 2014, EMC2 has been providing technical results to interested scientists and engineers in first world countries for them to validate them. Because of the importance of EMC2's breakthrough, meaning commercial fusion may now be a decade away. EMC2 is now committed to educating the wider public and is interested in doing this more and more.

EMC2's stated position is that it would be happy to engage with national and international civil society on fusion. It believes that commercial fusion companies will can develop fusion faster than public efforts and that there needs to be a full and open global dialogue between governments, energy companies, and civil society on the implications for national and regional economies as well as for the global economy, together with the impacts on the global environment and our atmosphere. In particular, fusion energy will reduce our output of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases as well as of particulates, especially from coal power plants.

In this light, civil society must play a role in opening up a dialogue about the safety and security of nuclear fusion. Though fusion only generates low level radioactive waste similar to a hospital, governments worldwide must be open about how to treat such waste as more power plants would mean more waste. Thus, strict safety and security protocols must be established for this potential new source of energy. However, if these protocols can be established, given the clear benefits of fusion energy, which will be similar in cost to natural gas with no fuel costs and no greenhouse gases, civil society should be cautiously optimistic.