Who would have predicted that an Earth Day lecture about energy would leave the Groton audience hopeful about the future of the planet?
Joy Dunn, head of operations at Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS), a clean energy start-up, provided a lesson on recent revolutionary breakthroughs in nuclear fusion—not to be confused with nuclear fission—during a Circle Talk in mid-April.
Fusion is the opposite of fission, she said, explaining that fusion combines atoms rather than splitting them. Fusion powers the sun and stars, but intensely powerful magnets are needed to create a fusion reaction on Earth.
While scientists and engineers have labored on the fusion conundrum for decades, the solution, Dunn believes, is within reach. Investors seem to think so, too; CFS has raised $2 billion, some from gas and oil companies.
Even green power solutions, such as solar and wind, require electricity and thus need breakthrough technologies to solve Earth's energy problems, Dunn said, “without further polluting the planet.” Effective fusion technology would slash the number of power plants—ten fusion-focused plants could replace the twenty-four natural gas plants that now power New York City, she said, and fusion devices are small and could be installed in existing plants.
According to Dunn, fusion is:
· available 24/7, not reliant on sun or wind
· safe, combining not splitting atoms
· clean, with no emissions and virtually no waste.
“The radioactive waste fusion will produce is equivalent to what a hospital produces. If you’re comfortable living next to a hospital,” Dunn said, “you’d be comfortable living next to a fusion power plant.”
Before CFS, the speaker spent nearly a decade at SpaceX, where she worked on the Dragon rocket and held various positions, including senior manager of spacecraft production. A self-described “space nerd my entire life,” Dunn showed pictures of her summers at Space Camp and a signed photograph of Sally Ride, the first American woman in space.
CFS emerged from an initiative at MIT, where Joy received her bachelor’s in aerospace, aeronautical, and astronautical engineering. She was honored as a Young Global Leader at the 2018 World Economic Forum.
Capturing energy through fusion has been a scientific holy grail, with countless attempts at fusion experiments that ultimately consumed more energy than they produced, she explained. Breakthroughs with high-temperature superconductors are allowing increased magnetic fields, and she expects the first fusion power plant to be on the grid during the 2030s. The goal beyond that: 10,000 fusion-powered plants by 2050.
Besides the humble potential to save the planet, fusion plants could also benefit the neighborhoods—generally in poorer areas—that now have coal-powered plants. “For every power plant that replaces a coal power place, we’re also providing clean, breathable air to that neighborhood,” she said.
If CFS’ plans work out, it will change not only the health of the planet but also the political landscape. “It will give countries energy independence from their neighbors,” Dunn said.
Dunn the “space nerd” is already looking well into the future. “People ask, what’s next for me after CFS?" Then she answers: "It’s putting fusion power plants on Mars.” She may not be joking.