By: John Bee, Managing Director, White Space Strategy
News flash: a £10bn prototype nuclear fusion power station is going to be built in the UK. This will create business opportunities for UK companies in 2023, and could have huge longer term implications.
In short, it’s absolutely massive news. Cracking nuclear fusion would completely transform the global economy. And, yet, when I posted about it on LinkedIn recently it only received 1,030 impressions, and, as far as I can tell, hasn’t made it much beyond the Construction Enquirer.
I’ve identified some potential implications below. First, though, read all about it (literally):
The full article is worth a read, too.
What would nuclear fusion mean for the world economy?
Answering this requires some understanding of the science involved. Nuclear fusion involves two colliding two radioactive hydrogen isotopes, deuterium and tritium, which creates a ginormous amount of energy (the sun is essentially a huge fusion reactor). This requires a very high temperature and a series of electromagnets to create and control the plasma formed by the reaction. The main by-product is helium, a harmless gas (the same one that gives you a squeaky voice when you breathe it in). Nuclear fission, by comparison, splits atoms, producing large amounts of radioactive waste. Many other forms of power generation produce CO2.
So, in theory, if you can create a fusion reaction and hold it stable – using less energy than it takes to set it off and stabilise it with the electromagnets – you’re essentially getting some free energy out as a surplus. Keep the plasma going by adding more fuel, and the amount of free energy could end up being vast.
The two main consequences of this would be:
- Almost free and unlimited energy for homes, factories and businesses
- Energy security
This is why nuclear fusion has the potential to transform the world economy – and this is why the £10bn reactor news story is so massive.
When will fusion actually happen?
It’s important to stress that this £10bn project is a prototype, and wouldn’t create a large-scale fully-functioning power station. Conservative estimates are that this kind of facility is 20-30 years off, as a minimum. For context, the more established DEMO project aims to get its own prototype up and running by 2040. It’s possible the timescales will end up being much longer – scientists have been trying to crack fusion for over 50 years and have yet to even get to the prototype power station phase.
However, three factors might accelerate timescales:
- Micro-reactors: technology advances are allowing smaller-scale micro-fusion reactors to become more feasible. This is allowing a larger number of start-up style companies to conduct experiments and push the boundaries forward
- Alternative technologies: there are several approaches to achieving nuclear fusion. The one receiving the greatest world resources is the Tokamak – basically a large doughnut-shaped collider pioneered by the Soviets. The feasibility of other approaches is driving competition
- China: their ‘artificial sun’ project has just set the record for the longest sustained fusion reaction (17 minutes)
So a sensible, if sobering, bet would be that China get there first, in the next 10 – 30 years (using micro-fusion technology). Then China and China only can produce as many goods and services as it wants without major energy costs or CO2 emissions.
A new world order
We’re therefore in an arms race – if China win, their economy (and capacity to manufacture weapons) will rapidly outstrip anything possible in the West.
This scenario is possible – and is why the West needs to increase its investment in fusion. Thinking in 10-20 years timeframes, how do we make sure today’s brightest physics and engineering graduates work in the fusion industry (as will be happening in China)?
There is another angle to consider, though. If humanity has access to limitless, virtually free energy, that doesn’t contribute to global warming, imagine what we’ll end up doing to natural resources. It’s not difficult to see a rapid acceleration of extraction, to feed the factories we could now build and operate much more cheaply. Regulation will be required to close down this risk
What does this mean for your industry?
For now, not a lot (unless you can bid for a part of the £10bn – or get involved in the fusion sector directly). Indirectly, though, fusion requires lithium, so will add to the rapidly growing global demand for it fuelled by EVs. This trend is problematic for any company and sector that also needs to buy lithium (such as the car industry). I go into more depth on this in my 15 Forces Shaping 2023 article, available as a free download on Whiteboard: accessing this rare earth is going to become increasingly challenging (and China controls a lot of the supply).
Longer-term, it’s worth keeping an eye on how the nuclear fusion space develops. One day, it might allow you to step-change the growth of your business. Or it might supercharge your Chinese competitors, allowing them to aggressively undercut you on price. Whatever happens, though, nuclear fusion is something to consider within scenario planning for 2035 and beyond.
About the author:
Managing Director, White Space Strategy
John founded White Space Strategy in 2005, and has worked on over 300 growth strategy projects worldwide.
White Space Strategy was named as one of the UK’s leading strategy and innovation consultancies by the Financial Times in 2021 and 2022.
He is currently also working with Oxford University within their UN Sustainable Development Goals Impact Lab, and has lectured at Warwick Business School.