Energy Department Considers New Partnership to Bring Star Power to Earth


The federal government wants to put money directly in industry’s hands to bring the concept of fusion reactors from sci-fi to reality.

As the world looks for sustainable, alternative forms of energy, the federal agency in charge of the nation’s power supply wants to harness the same energy-generating phenomenon that powers the stars.

The Energy Department has been supporting research into fusion power technologies—which hypothetically produce heat energy by forcing two atoms to fuse together under high pressure—since the concept was first suggested some 80 years ago as an alternative to current forms of nuclear power, which rely on fission, or the splitting of atoms to release energy.

Fission techniques in use in nuclear power plants across the globe are considered more dangerous—see: Chernobyl—and produce large quantities of radioactive nuclear waste that remains dangerous for thousands of years after use. Fusion reactions—like the ones powering our own Sun—reduce these issues significantly, or will if and when scientists are able to build a working fusion reactor.

The Energy Department wants to stay at the forefront of this technology and is working on a potential new funding source to bolster private sector development. The agency will publish a notice Monday in the Federal Register asking for industry feedback on the structure and focus of such a program.

“Recognizing the recent surge in interest and investments by the private sector in the development of fusion energy, the [Department of Energy Office of Science’s Fusion Energy Sciences] program has been exploring partnership initiatives to leverage the private sector efforts, with the objective of accelerating progress toward the realization of fusion energy and solidifying U.S. leadership in this critical energy technology of the future,” the notice states.

In the notice, Energy officials said the new effort will build on existing research partnerships between industry and the department-funded national laboratories.

Last June, the Energy Department launched the Innovation Network for Fusion Energy, or INFUSE, program to link private sector researchers with ongoing work at the department’s national labs. Through the program, Oak Ridge National Laboratory offered between $50,000 and $200,000 to support fusion energy research projects, with the requirement that industry partners match 20% of the funding. The partnership also included other national labs, including Princeton Plasma Physics Lab, Pacific Northwest, Idaho, Brookhaven, Lawrence Berkeley, Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore.

INFUSE was designed to “help address enabling technologies, such as new and improved magnets; materials science, including engineered materials, testing and qualification; plasma diagnostic development; modeling and simulation; and magnetic fusion experimental capabilities,” according to an Energy release issued last year.

While funding is available through the INFUSE program, it flows through the national labs. Under a new program, Energy is considering “cost share partnership programs where the funding is provided directly to the private-sector companies under a performance-based milestone-driven approach,” according to the notice in the Federal Register.

Through a request for information set to publish Monday, the department wants to “gather input about the topical areas, program objectives, eligibility requirements, program organization and structure, public and private roles and responsibilities, funding modalities, and assessment criteria of such an initiative.”

The comment deadline is set for May 15.