14 Mar 2024, 13:33
Benjamin Wehrmann

German research ministry aims to make nuclear fusion plant a reality “as fast as possible”

Clean Energy Wire

The German education and research ministry (BMBF), through a new support programme for nuclear fusion research, aims to lay the groundwork for building the country’s first functioning fusion reactor for energy generation by 2040, minister Bettina Stark-Watzinger announced. “Fusion offers a huge chance to solve all of our energy problems,” Stark-Watzinger said. An “excellent research landscape and strong industry provide ideal conditions for building fusion energy plants” in Germany, the politician from the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP) argued. The ministry plans to create a “fusion ecosystem” linking industrial companies with researchers and start-ups in order to make industrial use of the technology “a reality as fast as possible”. The ministry did not specify a funding amount. Fusion technology has, to date, progressed no further than the research stage anywhere in the world. “The worldwide race is on. I want Germany to be one of the first countries to build a fusion power plant. We must not miss this opportunity,” Stark-Watzinger added.

The BMBF already supports nuclear fusion research and last year pledged to invest about 1 billion euros into the technology by 2028. Support is so far concentrated on research institutes and the ministry said it now plans to establish a second support pillar focused on advancing the development of technologies, construction materials and components to move on to implementing nuclear fusion in the 2030s through public-private-partnerships. Researchers asked by the Science Media Centre Germany said that nuclear fusion technology does offer some very promising prospects for energy generation of the future, but warned that the technology’s development will take too long to help in the current climate action efforts.

The German research minister’s push for the technology followed a successful experiment by U.S. researchers in late 2022 that marked an important milestone in controlling nuclear fusion reactions. However, the researchers of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory at the time said their discovery would probably not be commercially viable for the foreseeable future. Jan Hesch, fusion researcher at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT), said the scientific consensus in Germany is that constructing a “demonstration plant” would take at least 20 years, and even longer before a technology to generate power with fusion is made to work. “We have to reduce emissions now to halt climate change,” said climate physicist Jan Wohland, from the Technical University Zurich (ETHZ) in Switzerland. Nuclear fusion “so far doesn’t work” and is therefore not included in the UN climate expert panel IPCC’s energy planning. Given the slow pace of progress in fusion research, Wohland said that the technology is unlikely to play a major role in energy supply for at least several decades. 

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