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Nuclear fusion companies are selling the sun, and venture capital is buying

Fusion power is likely still decades away, while its funders — and the climate crisis — demand a much quicker return.

The optimism within the industry may seem straightforward — it’s from the companies trying to make it happen — but it is also practical. As startups move into a field that was once largely the purview of governments, they need to show a return on investment.

Unfortunately, nuclear physics doesn’t care much about the length of venture capital funding cycles. Fusion has been the shiny prize just out of reach for well over half a century now: technology that would reproduce the power of the sun and solve the world’s energy woes in one fell swoop. But the technical difficulty of producing usable electricity from the fusion of atoms — rather than splitting them, as existing nuclear plants do — has proved too much for the world’s scientists, from governments and national laboratories to academia. Containing 100 million degree temperatures using magnets or lasers is not the most straightforward of propositions.

But recent achievements only highlight the yawning chasm the industry must bridge to get fusion power on the grid.

Moving the goal posts

But history shows that’s not always true.

No climate solution

The disconnect in timing and rhetoric isn’t entirely academic or just a matter of separating VC firms from their money. Front and center at the White House summit was the idea that fusion should be considered part of the solution to climate change.

“We’re here today because the world is on fire,” said Alondra Nelson, acting director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, adding that the hope is for fusion to be part of a suite of “clean energy game-changers.” National Climate Adviser Gina McCarthy was even more explicit: “Getting fusion energy to viability could be a critical tool for reducing emissions,” she said. But the idea seems disastrously out of touch with both the urgency of the climate problem and the near-term potential of fusion.

Scientists agree that to minimize the harm from climate change, humanity needs to keep warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit). And that would require the world to halve its greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and reduce them to essentially zero by 2050. There is nothing about the fusion industry, either publicly funded or private, to indicate it might help with those goals.

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