DOE picks eight fusion companies to design pilot power plants

June 2, 2023, 9:30AMNuclear News
Announcing the funding for commercial fusion energy development were Asmeret Asefaw Berhe (top left), director of the DOE-OS; Jennifer Granholm, secretary of energy (top right); and Arati Prabhakar (bottom), director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and science advisor to the president.

From a crowded field of would-be fusioneers, the Department of Energy has selected eight companies for the public-private Milestone-Based Fusion Development Program to develop fusion pilot plant designs and resolve related scientific and technological challenges within five to 10 years. The DOE announced awards totaling $46 million for an initial 18 months of work on May 31.

The awardees: Asmeret Asefaw Berhe, director of the DOE’s Office of Science, introduced distinguished guests for the announcement and moderated the following panel discussion, which was recorded live and later made available online.

Energy secretary Jennifer Granholm had the honor of announcing the competitively selected awardees. “Some are working on more technically mature approaches like tokamaks and stellarators and laser inertial fusion, and others are working on innovative concepts with lower technical maturity like mirror and Z-pinch, which could lead to more compact and lower cost systems,” Granholm explained. “And by funding such a diverse portfolio, our ultimate goal is for the strongest solutions to rise to the top and to help us chart a clear path forward to bring clean fusion energy to American homes and business.”

Below is the list of awardees:

Berhe emphasized the diversity of fusion approaches represented by the selected companies, noting, “Among our eight awardees we have two companies pursuing a tokamak approach, two pursuing a stellarator, two pursuing inertial fusion, and two additional approaches with the potential to add new tools to our toolbox of potential fusion energy technology.”

A novel type of program: The Milestone-Based Fusion Development Program is “a very novel type of program for DOE,” said Geraldine Richmond, the DOE’s undersecretary for science and innovation, because it is a “public-private partnership, where the federal government provides fixed payments to private companies for reaching mutually negotiated technical, business, commercialization, and community benefits milestones. And it's particularly inspired by the NASA Commercial Orbit Transportation Services program that helped enable the commercial space launch industry.”

White House Office of Science and Technology Policy director Arati Prabhakar said that decades of work have established the scientific basis for fusion, which “is necessary, but it's very, very far from sufficient. And as this team here on this call knows better than anyone, there's so much more work that has to be done to turn this into something that is a commercial capability that's consistent and safe and reliable, that deals with all the thermal issues, deals with all the materials issues, deals with all of the radiation issues that will still be there even with this much more advanced technology.”

A panel of representatives from private companies, the research sector, and financial partners proceeded to discuss some of those issues. The panel included Bob Mumgaard of Commonwealth Fusion Systems; Susana Reyes of Xcimer Energy, Kathy McCarthy of Oak Ridge National Laboratory; Carlos Paz-Soldan of Columbia University, Phil Larochelle of Breakthrough Energy Ventures; and Jean Ibañez Payne of TI Verbatim Consulting. The entire announcement and panel discussion can be viewed online.

Program framework: Applicants for the milestone program were selected following a competitive merit-review process that included evaluation of their scientific, technical, commercialization, and business and financial viabilities, according to the DOE. The review also looked at the companies’ plans to support DOE efforts in the Justice40 Initiative, which includes a goal that 40 percent of the overall benefits of certain climate and energy investments flow to disadvantaged communities.

The total funding of $46 million will cover the first 18 months of work, with funds coming from fiscal years 2022 and 2023. Projects may last up to five years, with outyear funding contingent on congressional appropriations and satisfactory progress in meeting the negotiated milestones.

Original announcement: The DOE announced the milestone program in September 2022, open to for-profit companies possibly teamed with national laboratories, universities, and others. The announcement followed the White House Fusion Summit in March 2022 and a DOE fusion workshop in June 2022, and was authorized by the Energy Act of 2020 and modeled from extensive input from the fusion energy community.

While eight awards were granted, the funding opportunity announcement originally envisioned between three and five awards ranging from $5 million to $25 million, and applicants could apply to one or both of two tiers: Tier 1 targeted a preliminary design review by the late 2020s for a fusion pilot plant that could operate by the early 2030s, and Tier 2 outlined a “plausible path” to a pilot plant that could begin operations by the late 2030s. The DOE’s May 31 announcement did not distinguish between Tier 1 and Tier 2 awardees.

Look for more: Look for in-depth coverage of DOE’s eight picks for the milestone fusion program featuring "innovative concepts" (Realta Fusion and Zap Energy), inertial confinement (Focused Energy and Xcimer Energy), stellarators (Princeton Stellarators and Type One Energy), and tokamaks (Commonwealth Fusion Systems and Tokamak Energy).

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