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The End of Scarcity

The End of Scarcity

Nuclear fusion is the primordial source of the sun’s energy. For decades, scientists have been trying to re-create it on Earth. Now they’re closer than ever to achieving it—and to unlocking a future of clean power for all.

Illustrated by Merijn Hos

I n June 2022, amid an oil supply shortage resulting in part from the war in Ukraine, the United States marked a major milestone: The average price of a gallon of gasoline topped $5 for the first time in American history.

For many, the record-breaking price at the pump was just the latest reminder of oil’s volatility as a source of energy. Political conflicts have led to sudden shortages and skyrocketing prices before, as the extraction of oil has brought about countless instances of revolt, invasion, and bloodshed all around the world. Now the excessive use of oil is chiefly responsible for environmental impacts that may even threaten life on Earth. Despite those costs, however, demand for oil, and other fossil fuels, has only grown.

This spring’s oil market disruption sent many leaders looking for short-term fixes in other fossil fuels, including coal and natural gas. Others lamented an inability to accelerate the transition to familiar renewable sources like wind and solar, since the conflict also disrupted supplies of so-called energy transition metals—such as copper, nickel, platinum, aluminum, and lithium—used to manufacture solar panels and wind turbines and store their energy.

In the face of this looming scarcity, the everlasting human need for abundant, secure, environmentally sound energy has only become more urgent. And nuclear fusion, the process that powers the sun, is emerging as an increasingly promising part of the solution.

Scientists have been trying to create fusion energy for decades, and for as long as they’ve toiled, cynics have said humans can’t outthink the inherent challenges of replicating the sun’s abilities for terrestrial needs. But today, in laboratories around the world, visionary physicists and engineers are quickly approaching a scientific turning point. Dozens of companies and research institutions are now vying to be the first to prove fusion’s viability.

“If we can get fusion to work in a continuous, affordable energy-positive way, it would indeed be transformative for the whole world in ways that are hard to imagine,” says Dr. Michael E. Webber, author of Power Trip: The Story of Energy and professor of energy resources at the University of Texas at Austin.

Investors have taken note of the promise of fusion. Within the past 12 months alone, the amount of funding for fusion more than doubled the industry’s entire investment history, according to the Fusion Industry Association, with private funding topping $4.7 billion so far. In July, California-based private commercial fusion company TAE Technologies announced it has raised an impressive $1.2 billion since its 1998 founding, including a recent infusion of $250 million from institutional investors Google, Sumitomo Corporation of Americas, Chevron, and others. In August, Bloomberg Intelligence Thematic Strategist Mike Dennis suggested the nuclear fusion market could achieve a $40 trillion valuation, noting that even if the technology will take time to gain a commercial foothold, it “will remake energy markets the way Tesla remade the automobile industry.”

“This is the existential problem of our time,” says TAE CEO Dr. Michl Binderbauer. “We have to solve it.”

Binderbauer and other pioneers now believe the development of fusion energy is inevitable because the field has reached an inflection point where the science and engineering know-how matches the demands of theory and design. If fusion energy were to become commercially available, it would be unlike any other power source humanity has ever devised. TAE’s reactors, theoretically, could be built anywhere in the world, and they would provide carbon-free, nonradioactive, affordable, near-limitless energy. Deployed at scale, those reactors could put an end to our modern age of energy instability and help turn around many seemingly intractable global problems.

The Specter of Scarcity

The ability to harness and direct energy sets our species apart from others, enabling us to feed booming populations, traverse the globe, and even escape its orbit. But the forward march of human progress has also been accompanied by unevenly distributed environmental destruction and energy scarcity. According to Dr. Nafeez Ahmed, founder and executive director of System Shift Lab, those negative consequences aren’t inevitable; they simply reflect unjust political and economic systems. “Scarcity is not fixed in nature,” says Ahmed. “It’s actually something we constructed.”

The roots of that system of artificial scarcity go back centuries. In medieval England, people relied on fire for energy, and peasants had access to common land to collect firewood or cut turf for fuel. Beginning in the 17th century, however, a series of laws prohibited the public from using these lands, causing an exodus to the big cities. The needs of growing populations and the burgeoning Industrial Revolution in the 1700s precipitated one of the most massive energy transformations in human history. “As wood became scarcer and more expensive, this was the big push to use coal, and Britain had unusually rich resources of it,” says author and historian Dr. Peter N. Stearns, a professor at George Mason University.

But that energy transformation came with substantial environmental costs. Reliance on wood contributed to deforestation. Later, coal darkened the skies in Britain’s cities, blackened buildings, and made people sick. The commercialization of oil in the 1840s came with more environmental costs. In the past 70 years, humans have consumed more energy than the preceding 11,700 years combined. But as our energy consumption grew to previously unfathomable proportions—sparking interest in other energy sources like electricity and catapulting society into the age of modernity as we know it—it also drove destructive extraction economies in natural-resource-rich nations that fed the avarice of empires. Oil despots and coal barons prospered as the push to excavate resources wrought outsize environmental and social harms.

The evolution of global energy consumption over time
The evolution of global energy consumption over time
The evolution of global energy consumption over time

At this point in our history, we face a fork in the road: Either we repeat the patterns of scarcity, pollution, and extraction that drive so much of the inequity we see the world over, or we revolutionize our energy system with nuclear fusion and, for the first time in modern history, fulfill the needs of all without damaging the planet. “We have the possibility of creating a world where everybody can meet their needs,” says Ahmed.

Fusion scientists know they face a daunting task, working in a field that has, to date, measured its advancements in decades. Yet, every day, they rise to toil under the sun: the benevolent, all-gracing power they hope to replicate on Earth.

The Sun in a Bottle

The experimental fusion reactor at TAE Technologies looks like something from the starship Enterprise. Eighty feet long and 22 feet tall, the reactor has gleaming surfaces studded with ports and plugs and belted with a series of huge, bright-red concentric rings. It’s a technological—and aesthetic—sight to behold. “We engineering folk also have some style,” says Mike Meekins, TAE VP of research and development for mechanical engineering.

No part of the device—built by a pioneering team of engineers and physicists, inside a nondescript industrial building in Orange County, California—is just for looks. The bright-red rings are in fact powerful electromagnets that couple up to 100 gigawatts of power into two axially opposed starter plasmas for a few microseconds before launching them toward each other at speeds of 670,000 mph, fast enough to circle Earth in two minutes. Upon collision, they form a hollow football of superheated plasma in the center of the machine, efficiently confined by the magnets as well as the plasma’s own magnetic field. The yellow canisters studding the machine contain eight particle beams that heat and rotate the plasma in place like a spinning top, ultimately bringing it up to temperatures many times hotter than the sun, to some 75 million degrees Celsius. The ability to direct and control that kind of energy is enabled by an army of blue refrigerator-sized power supplies that store and distribute electricity in extremely short, controlled bursts.

TAE scientists can sustain plasmas at temperatures approximately five times hotter than the core of the sun.

“Fusion is putting the sun in a bottle. It is the cleanest, most productive source of energy that you can conceive of,” says Dr. Michio Kaku, professor of theoretical physics in the City College of New York and CUNY Graduate Center. “The only problem is, it doesn’t yet exist.”

Here on Earth, nuclear energy has traditionally been made with fission, by splitting atoms. But that kind of energy comes with drawbacks, including expensive start-up costs, regulatory challenges, radioactive fuels and waste, and infrequent but disastrous reactor meltdowns, such as those in Chernobyl and Fukushima. Nuclear fusion eliminates almost all of fission’s downsides, but it presents much more difficult physics and engineering challenges.

The effort to develop fusion power began in the 1920s and ’30s, shortly after physicists came to understand the atom as well as the mechanism by which the sun produces energy. After World War II, individual countries pursued it, mostly in secret in government-funded labs. In the 1950s, fusion research went public and became an international project. It has attracted the attention of both detractors and fabulists since its earliest days, even as a scientific consensus has formed among a diligent core of researchers.

Researchers have experimented with many designs and approaches for fusion, but most of them require the same fuel: deuterium and tritium. Deuterium can be extracted from seawater, but tritium is scarce and radioactive. In light of that and other challenges of working with radioactive fuels, scientists at TAE have pursued fusion of hydrogen with boron, a common element used in everyday products like fertilizers and detergents. Boron is cheap, nonradioactive, and easy to acquire anywhere in the world. It’s also highly efficient: According to TAE, on the order of 1 percent of today’s current boron production could power enough fusion energy to entirely replace fossil fuels. But boron requires much higher temperatures than deuterium and tritium to produce fusion.

TAE’s fifth-generation reactor is named Norman, after the company’s late technology co-founder, Dr. Norman Rostoker. The celebrated scientist and professor at UC Irvine began working in the field of nuclear fusion in 1959 and was an innovator in fusion research until his death in 2014. He didn’t live to see his namesake reactor fire up its first plasma shot—but fusion’s potential was never lost on him.

Rostoker’s former students and colleagues continue to push toward his aim to create an elegant source of power that keeps “the end in mind,” as he was known to say—creating a new source of commercial energy for all, without inventing more unsolvable problems for the planet. TAE CEO Binderbauer was one of Rostoker’s former Ph.D. students, and together they became the company’s technology co-founders. TAE’s founding board came to include the Nobel Prize–winning nuclear chemist Glenn T. Seaborg and astronaut Buzz Aldrin, among others. For the majority of TAE’s existence, the company’s scientists have operated in “stealth mode,” Meekins says, so that they could prove the viability of their approach to boron-based fusion before introducing the concept more publicly. The company’s team now includes scientists and engineers from more than three dozen countries, and their research has been advancing at a fast pace.

Scientists at TAE’s Orange County, California lab construct Norman, the company’s fifth-generation reactor.

One significant stride forward came thanks to investor and innovation partner Google, which helped TAE analyze data from Norman, a machine with 80,000 electrified parts and countless parameters that measure the performance of the plasma required to develop energy. TAE collaborated with Google to develop machine learning tools such as the Optometrist Algorithm that speed up the company’s experiments.

TAE’s next reactor, Copernicus, will operate at much higher temperatures than its predecessor—some 100 to 150 million degrees Celsius—and for longer periods of time. Ultimately, TAE’s scientists believe Copernicus will be able to demonstrate the viability of generating at least as much power as is required to keep it running. Scientists call this long-sought milestone Q=1, or “breakeven,” and achieving this notoriously elusive goal is the shared aim of every fusion outfit on the planet today. “We’re keeping our fingers crossed, hoping that TAE will prove breakeven,” says Dr. John Platt, director of applied science at Google Research, who is involved in developing these tools. “That would be a major milestone for humanity.”

According to Dr. Richard Magee, senior director of physics R&D at TAE, reaching Q=1 wouldn’t be the end of TAE’s ambitions. “Q=1 is not the finish line. Even a first-of-its-kind plant is not the finish line,” he says. “It’s actually deploying a fleet of reactors.” To power the entire world with clean energy and mitigate climate change, that fleet would have to resemble something more like an entire navy—and it would need to be constructed quickly. “This is an engineering feat that’s never, ever been contemplated by man, and it’s one that would require all nations and all peoples to get behind it,” says Jim McNiel, TAE’s chief marketing officer.

The Age of Abundance

Today, the amount of energy you use has everything to do with where you live. In Bangladesh, according to the most recent statistics from the World Bank, the average person uses 320 kilowatt hours per year. In Western Europe, the average is 8,081 kWh/yr. In the United States, it’s 12,994 kWh/yr. The average person uses more than three times that amount in Iceland—where almost all of the electricity consumed comes from renewable energy.

“The thing about fossil fuels is you have to be blessed with the right geography. You just have to happen to have built your cities on top of or near a place where there’s a bunch of dead dinosaurs and other organisms. Wind and solar are also dependent on geography,” says Eli Dourado, economist and senior research fellow at the Center for Growth and Opportunity at Utah State University.

TAE’s fusion reactors, which Binderbauer says can be built safely on just a few acres, could provide energy free of such constraints. They would allow everyone in the world to scale up their energy use without unduly damaging the environment or fueling geopolitical conflict. They could also drastically change the way we live on Earth by bringing to fruition other game-changing innovations that haven’t met their fullest potential because they require too much electricity to make them economically viable.

Take transportation. Superabundant energy would help advance a whole host of new ways for people to get around, from electric commuter planes to vertical-takeoff-and-landing aircraft to hyperloops. Goods could be transported by autonomous electric trucks and cargo drones.

Our food and water sources could see similarly dramatic changes. High-tech greenhouses and vertical farms could produce food without using much land. Energy-intensive lab-grown meat, meanwhile, could expand from a niche market to become a widely produced source of protein. Desalination plants which extract fresh water from seawater, and atmospheric water generators, which pull water from the air, could vastly improve access to water, an increasingly in-demand resource.

Besides these tangible implications, abundant energy also could bring intangible—but no less important—changes in our mentality. Albert Einstein once said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge,” and this is especially true when it comes to building a world of energy superabundance. The problem of scarcity, after all, isn’t just a matter of material goods; it’s also a limit on our imagination. In the past, escalating technology powered by cheap fossil fuel energy unlocked tremendous scientific, cultural, and economic advancements and unleashed a torrent of productive and creative capacity. With fusion, that creative potential could increase exponentially. “Our problem would shift from ‘We don’t have enough’ to ‘How do we decide what to do with all this energy? How do we harness it? How do we maximize it? How can we make it useful?’ And then the sky’s the limit,” says Ahmed.

TAE projects that its first commercial fusion energy plants will come online in the 2030s. But empowering the best of human ingenuity won’t be instantaneous, and advancement is never without its setbacks. “Humans are good at finding reasons to argue. But it would nevertheless be a huge step in the right direction,” says Webber.

At TAE, the optimistic, determined pursuit of fusion has already unlocked advancements that can improve life on Earth in the near future. As the company’s scientists worked to solve energy storage issues to fuel the reactor, they discovered valuable insights now being used to develop better power management systems for electric vehicles and stationary energy storage. Other discoveries in the pursuit of fusion led to the creation of TAE Life Sciences, which is now bringing the promising Boron Neutron Capture Therapy technology to clinical settings to treat cancer patients.

“Fusion is a humbling pursuit, with constant challenges alongside important, incremental gains. While we work to harness the power of fusion, we have gained fresh optimism along the way because we have seen that it opens doors to so much more,” says Binderbauer.