The NOVA laser system at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, part of the US government-sponsored Inertial Fusion Energy program. Photo: Livermore National Laboratory

Fusion energy is an old concept that has proved challenging to translate into reality. Since the dawn of the nuclear age, scientists have been probing ways to generate energy from the collision of atomic particles. Harnessing this power is a clean and potentially limitless form of energy, but the process has traditionally been expensive.

The Joint European Torus (JET) laboratory, a UK-based fusion research program, last week announced a significant breakthrough in the amount of energy produced from nuclear fusion. The announcement is proof positive that nuclear fusion is on the precipice of becoming a viable form of clean energy.

As the world looks for ways to curb harmful carbon emissions, the potential of nuclear fusion is staggering. Unlike the fission process used currently in nuclear power reactors, fusion is safer, produces less radioactive waste and uses more common elements as a fuel supply, such as hydrogen, as opposed to rare elements like uranium.

The question is, how are we going to bring fusion to the masses?

Nuclear fusion is a straightforward concept. When two light atoms are combined together to form one heavier atom, the process releases energy. How scientists achieve the combination sounds like something from a science-fiction novel.

In some experiments, particles fly at each other at hypersonic speeds in specialized accelerators. Lasers, liquid metal, and super0magnets are also used to establish the bond that releases ample amounts of clean energy.

The amount of heat needed to smash the atoms together is out of this world. In most situations, the reactor needs to be heated to a temperature higher than at the center of the sun (around 100 million degrees Celsius).

Up to this point, it has been difficult to generate sustainable amounts of energy from this process because of how expensive and intensive it is. That’s one reason the JET laboratory announcement is significant. 

The latest experiment produced 59 megajoules of energy in five seconds. That’s not a lot by itself, but it is more than double the output of similar tests conducted in 1997. The increased performance confirms that the design of the reactor used by JET can produce significant results if the reactor is big enough. A much bigger version of the same reactor is being built in France, which should create historic amounts of energy.

The experiment highlights the challenge of infrastructure in fusion energy. Nuclear reactors are expensive to build and operate. Fusion projects have depended on government funding to carry out experiments with uncertain results. This is changing thanks to general trends in technology and renewable-energy projects.

The push toward renewables, which has resulted in record levels of electric-vehicle production in recent years, is breathing new life into efforts to find a solution for fusion. Startups such as First Light Fusion based in Oxford, England, are emblematic of the trend toward venture-capital funding for fusion projects. 

Fusion energy is following a broadly similar trajectory as electric cars. Two decades ago, electric vehicles were more pipe dream than a viable automobile industry sector. The technology was inefficient and the costs for average consumers were prohibitively high.

Thanks to some technological breakthroughs and the declining costs of lithium-ion batteries, electric vehicles are poised to take over the automobile industry in the coming years.

Such exponential growth is seen across technology sectors these days, from the rising numbers of people using smartphones to the expanding power of computer chipsets. With the right amount of funding from the public and private sectors, fusion energy looks like it is about to enter its own exponential phase.

While Europe, the US, Russia, China and Japan have taken the lead during the experimental phase, the opportunity for other countries to get in early on this transformative technology is right now.

The governments and companies that invest now stand to be at the forefront of the next energy revolution. The next phase of innovation could take place in an emerging-market country. The Arab Gulf countries look like perfect contenders. 

If the Gulf economies want to hold their pole position in global energy markets, they need to invest in fusion energy. Many Gulf countries have the capital to invest in fusion projects at home or abroad.

Moreover, such countries as the United Arab Emirates can attract the top scientific talent needed to establish the next breakthrough for home-grown projects. A local project would benefit from spurring local knowledge economies as they establish themselves in the region.

Many analysts believe that whoever cracks fusion energy will be at the forefront of a technological leap for humankind. There is no reason this leap must happen in the West. 

Given the Arab Gulf region’s position among emerging markets, exporting fusion technology to developing nations in Asia and Africa will positively alter the lives of millions. 

As emerging-market populations continue to grow and energy sources become strained, cheap renewable power is a critical priority for governments around the world. The next breakthrough in clean energy will likely have some connection to fusion.

It’s not a question of if any more. It’s a question of when. 

This article was provided by Syndication Bureau, which holds copyright.

Joseph Dana is the senior editor of Exponential View, a weekly newsletter about technology and its impact on society. He was formerly the editor-in-chief of emerge85, a lab exploring change in emerging markets and its global impact.