“It’s not a question I get very often,” said Michelle Binderbauer, CEO of TA Technologies, when asked about the economics of design for her company. People are likely to ask how the company plans to heat the 75 million plasmas it has demonstrated so far to 1 billion degrees Celsius. But the questions are interrelated, he says.
That high temperature is needed because TAE uses boron as fuel, along with hydrogen, which Binderbauer thinks will ultimately make the fusion reactor lighter and result in a cheaper power plant to build. It puts costs somewhere between fiscal and renewables—roughly where the Princeton modelers say they should be. It suggests that while fusion plants are expensive to build, the fuel will be extremely cheap. In addition, the low risk of accidents and minimal high-level radioactive waste means an escape from costly regulations that raise costs for fission plants.
Bob Mumgaard, CEO of Commonwealth Fusion Systems, an MIT spinoff, said he was excited to see Princeton’s modeling, because he thought the tokamak could break those cost requirements. That claim rests primarily on the company’s hope that it will allow it to make tokamaks — and therefore power plants — on a smaller scale, saving money. CFS is building a scaled-down integration design that includes most of the components needed for a working plant in Massachusetts. “You can actually go and see and touch and see the machines,” he said.
Nicholas Hawker, CEO of the Inertial Fusion company First Light, published his own economic analysis of fusion power in 2020 and surprisingly found that the biggest cost drivers were not in the fusion unit and exotic materials, but in the capacitors. And turbines need any power generation.
Still, Hawker expects a slower climb from some of his colleagues. “The first plants always break,” he said, and the industry needs significant government support – just as the solar industry has in the past two decades. That’s why many governments and companies think it’s a good idea to try different approaches: some technologies increase the chances of survival.
Schwartz agrees. “It would be amazing if the universe allowed for some kind of fusion energy,” he said. That distinction is important, he says, because otherwise the industry risks learning the science only to back itself into an uneconomic corner. Both nuclear fission and solar panels have already gone through similar trials in their technological direction. Over time, both converged on the same design in photovoltaics and giant pressure water transmissions built around the world.
But for integration, first things first: the science. It may not work anytime soon. Maybe it will take another 30 years. But despite Ward’s caution about the limits of integration on the grid, his research is still paying for itself, leading to new advances in basic science and the creation of new materials. “I still think it’s totally worth it,” he said.
Updated 4-11-2023, 1:10 pm EDT: An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to the TAE reactor design as a tokamak.