In support of Earth Day 2023, CEO and Co-founder James DeMuth shares his thoughts on how fusion energy has the potential to be the global equalizer, and why the race to fusion produces meaningful benefits for all.
In the summer of 2009, I arrived at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), fresh out of grad school at Stanford University, and just in time for the launch of the National Ignition Facility (NIF) at LLNL. I joined to help design a fusion power plant with the goal of creating unlimited green energy from seawater and lithium, based on the architecture of the NIF, as part of the Laser Inertial Fusion Energy (LIFE) program.
The milestone event everyone was aiming for was called “ignition” – defined as more energy out than laser energy in. The original goal was to reach ignition by September 30, 2012(1). Over a decade later, on December 5, 2022, LLNL finally reached a point of ignition, resulting in the first controlled fusion experiment in history to achieve scientific energy breakeven.
The quest for fusion, like the space race to Mars, has garnered support from all levels of government, venture capital, and inspired countless inventions along the way. The benefits of fusion research are moving beyond the lab to everyday applications. From new smartphone chips that help detect radioactive material(2) to electrifying manufacturing with clean energy.
On the fusion front, next comes wall-plug breakeven (more energy created than the electricity needed to drive the lasers), and then comes demonstrating positive gain with ample margin to operate. This is just the starting point for developing a power plant. It was the mission of the LIFE program and is now a mantle taken up by many in the emerging fusion industry.
It’s a pity that the quest for clean energy is sadly seen by many as a distraction.
The milestone event everyone was aiming for was called “ignition” – defined as more energy out than laser energy in.
Rather than viewing ignition as a scientific breakthrough, they have criticized how long it’s taken. Others criticize how green energy is in fact not very clean, and vice versa. They talk about how the solar panels installed on our homes and offices are mostly manufactured in China with coal, and then shipped across the ocean. Even EV automakers Rivian and Polestar have recently admitted that they seem ‘far off-track’ from meeting the targets set by the Paris Climate Agreement 3(3).
All of these opinions are equally right and wrong because the journey to clean energy includes paradoxes.
Arguing about the perceived right way vs. the perceived wrong way of doing things actually misses the bigger point that’s taking place right in front of us - new ecosystems of auxiliary and tangential technologies have formed from this fusion race. A generation ago, the first space race faced many similar criticisms. But, if we had not forged ahead we would not have CAT scans that have saved so many lives, solar cells powering our modern green movement, or even baby formula and camera phones.
Arguing about the perceived right way vs. the perceived wrong way of doing things actually misses the bigger point that’s taking place right in front of us.
The lead for LLNL’s Inertial Fusion Energy Institutional Initiative, Tammy Ma, hits on the points I feel are lost in the clean energy narrative: “NIF is now over 20 years old. The technology inside the NIF is ’80s and ’90s technology, and things have progressed quite a lot since then. There have also been enormous advancements in target fabrication, new materials, computation and simulations, and the application of machine learning. So it's a really exciting time because we get to incorporate all of these emerging technologies with this new scientific understanding that we've developed to really push toward inertial fusion energy(4).
It all comes down to energy. Is it possible to generate a lot of high-quality energy, very cheaply, in an easily controllable form? If so, then fusion can infuse itself into many more applications, like manufacturing, medical, electric vehicles, and the list goes on 5(5).
A need to solve manufacturing problems in building an actual fusion power plant helped create the underlying technology for a company that I helped launch, Seurat Technologies. Out of that need has come innovation, technology demonstration, and spinoffs to advance a new era of manufacturing and energy development.
We have found that the cost economics of lasers gets incredible as they scale. At a certain point, the scaling looks something like 10x the productivity for 2-4x the price. Advanced manufacturing can now produce products more cost-effectively than ever before.
Now just down the river from where the U.S. Industrial Revolution began – outside of Boston, the future of manufacturing and unlimited green energy is coming to life. Seurat has built our lasers from the ground-up, leveraging our founding experience from LLNL basically re-creating the lasers used for fusion at a smaller scale. We have found that the cost economics of lasers gets incredible as they scale. At a certain point, the scaling looks something like 10x the productivity for 2-4x the price. Advanced manufacturing can now produce products more cost-effectively than ever before.
Fusion energy has the potential to be the global equalizer. We’re happy to be an enabler of it, and ultimately a customer. Seurat is just one example of a technology spinoff from the race to fusion.
As different efforts progress to develop fusion power, many more technologies will be developed to support it. We will then need the entrepreneurial spirit of many to see the potential for those technologies, commercialize them, and bring them as well to the forefront of the industry.