After Brandon Sorbom graduated from Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles in 2010, he decided to take the “couple of thousand dollars” he had saved and his credit card (he had 0% interest for a year) and fly to Boston.
Sorbom wanted to get his Ph.D. in nuclear fusion but had been rejected from all five programs he applied to, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. MIT had told Sorbom, who studied electrical engineering and engineering physics in undergrad, that he didn’t have enough hands-on lab experience.
So Sorbom headed there to try to get a job at the school’s fusion energy lab.
It was “probably a really stupid strategy looking back,” Sorborm says. “But I was 22 and I was like, ‘Oh sure, I’ll be able to make this work.'”
Sorborm did make it work: He got the job, and 12 years later, Sorborm has his doctorate from MIT and is co-founder and chief scientific officer of Commonwealth Fusion Systems, a rapidly growing company spun out of Sorbom and his co-founders’ research. CFS aims to commercialize, fusion, a safe and virtually limitless source of “clean energy,” to combat climate change. The company is funded by the likes of Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates by way of energy innovation investment fund Breakthrough Energy.
At the heart of Commonwealth Fusion Systems is nuclear fusion. It is the process by which two atoms slam into each other and fuse into one heavier atom, generating energy. It’s what powers the sun.
Fusion has many upsides: First, it’s clean. (Most energy used around the world is generated by burning carbon-based materials that release gasses into the atmosphere, warming the planet.)
It is also a virtually unlimited resource. Other clean energies are fundamentally limited — wind energy depends on the wind blowing and solar energy depends on the sun shining, for example.
Plus, nuclear fusion is generally safe, so reactors can be located near populations centers or cities, which helps with infrastructure. (That’s unlike nuclear fission, or splitting an atom to generate energy, which is the same process used in an atom bomb. Fission generates dangerous radioactive waste, and some high-profile accidents have caused massive destruction, but nuclear fission power plants currently generate about 20% of the electricity used in the U.S.)
Then there’s fusion’s potential. Because an isotope of hydrogen is the main fuel of fusion, the right technology could one day make a glass of water, aka H2O, foster enough fusion reactions to generate the amount of energy consumed by one person for a lifetime, according to CFS.
“Fusion can provide both electricity generation and heat — meaning that it can meet all sorts of energy demand, including to: power homes, recharge batteries, create clean fuels, drive chemical processes, or other industrial uses,” says Andrew Holland, executive director of the Fusion Industry Association.
It will “fit directly into existing grids, and not require significant upgrades,” Holland says. Ideally, once scaled, fusion energy would eventually be comparable in cost to the current cost of electricity.
On the other hand, fusion has one big problem: With the present technology, fusion usurps all the energy it creates to sustain the reaction, leaving no “net energy” to power other things.
A 35-country collaboration in southern France is working to change that by building the largest fusion machine on the planet, called Iter (Latin for “the way”). It’s “the most expensive science experiment that humanity has ever tried, on the order of $20 billion,” according to Egemen Kolemen, an assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Princeton University.
But for Sorbom and the rest of the Commonwealth Fusion Systems team, Iter is too expensive and is taking too long to significantly affect the looming global warming crisis.
The CFS solution
Fusion will one day provide zero-emissions energy at large scale, says Holland. But getting there won’t be easy.
Creating and capturing the energy of the sun is delicate. A special form of hydrogen has to be heated until it gets to the fourth state of matter, plasma.
“If you heat a solid up, it turns into a liquid. If you heat that liquid up, it turns into a gas. If you heat that gas up, it turns into a plasma,” he says, and “you get a charge soup of particles.”
Plasma is an extremely fragile state of matter. If interrupted, the fusion reaction stops. So scientists developed a machine known by the Russian acronym tokamak, which uses magnetic fields to hold a doughnut of plasma safely in a container.
Research by Sorbom and his colleagues focuses on improving the tokamak, specifically by “making better and better magnets,” Sorbom says.
Better and stronger magnets mean better insulation for the plasma, and the more efficiently the plasma can be heated up, the more energy that can be generated, eventually producing net energy. In the machines CFS is working on, temperatures will be around 100 million degrees Celsius, which is roughly 180 million degrees Fahrenheit.
Though CFS’ founders were initially funded by MIT and the U.S. Department of Energy, Sorbom and his colleagues eventually turned to capitalism, launching Commonwealth Fusion Systems in June 2018.
So far, Commonwealth Fusion Systems has raised more than $215 million, with its most recent funding round announced in May. Breakthrough Energy Ventures, a fund with investments from Gates, Bezos, Ray Dalio, Richard Branson, Jack Ma, Michael Bloomberg and others, has contributed to Commonwealth Fusion Systems, as has The Engine, a venture capital company associated with MIT. CFS says the current funding will take the company through 2021, but it will seek additional funding.
CFS will make money by designing and building nuclear fusion power plants for customers, which could begin to produce revenue this decade, according to CFS communications director Kristen Cullen.
CFS says when fusion ultimately replaces other power sources, it will be competitive in one of the largest markets in the global economy.
CFS is also working on other commercial applications of its magnet technology, like in MRI machines or wind turbines.
For now, its next milestone is the debut of its magnet technology this summer, and then by 2025 developing a SPARC, a machine that would demonstrate that CFS technology can generate net energy.
From there, CFS would move on to develop ARC, its first fusion power plant connected to the power grid. CFS says it expects to be making fusion energy on the grid “in the early 2030s.”
There is a lot that Sorbom and the CFS team have to accomplish before fusion is brought to market on any large scale. But industry watchers are optimistic. The Fusion Industry Association’s Holland hopes innovation in the next decade will make commercialization possible by the 2030s, a timeline that is “soon enough to matter for the climate crisis,” he says.
And though government-backed projections for fusion commercialization are a bit longer term, UCLA physics professor Troy Carter thinks a shorter timeline is possible.
“With the private and public sectors working together, I think we can make this happen, but we need to start now, and more investment is needed,” says Carter. He chaired a committee that published a report for the Energy Department outlining a strategic plan to build a pilot fusion plant by the 2040s.
Sorbom is also encouraged by the Biden administration’s focus on climate change, but he’s also realistic. “Climate change is a really big problem,” Sorbom says. “People think the pandemic is bad, but if you look at projections of what [climate change] could look like by 2050 … it’s pretty scary.”
Indeed, “fusion power is a solution to global warming,” says Holland. “The challenge is getting it onto the grid fast enough.”
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