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Dr Christos Stavrou on why fusion may be the global climate emergency’s only solution

For many years, scientists have worked tirelessly to harness fusion – the same process that powers the Sun and other stars – in a controlled manner. Fusion power offers the potential for a clean and almost limitless supply of energy.

Dr Christos Stavrou, founder and CEO of UK-based Fusion Reactors, talks to GOLD about the endless opportunities provided by fusion and explains why it may be the only solution to the global climate emergency.

“It might be a cliché to say that it's a gamechanger, but when we commercialise fusion energy, it will truly be a gamechanger! Progress inevitably means higher energy demand, whether this is through new uses, such as AI, or through ensuring that everyone on the planet enjoys the quality of life we do in advanced economies. We consider fusion to be a step change in our civilisation because it will allow us to continue meeting this demand without harming the planet.”

So says Fusion Reactors founder and CEO Dr. Christos Stavrou and my meeting with him feels surreal, to say the least. Sitting opposite me in an untidy studio, with electric plugs and wires scattered all over the place, he has just casually informed me that fusion technology has the potential to save the planet from spiraling environmental destruction!

Stunned, I obviously want to hear more.

“Starting with a comparison between fusion and fission, they're both nuclear processes,” he tells me. “In fission, we break a large nucleus apart, which releases energy, but in fusion, we take two very light nuclei and we join them together. In practice, the difference between generating electricity from fusion and fission is that, with fusion, it's much safer, more secure, and, ultimately, cheaper.”

So we shouldn’t be afraid of another Chernobyl or Fukushima-style accident?

“No. The process is inherently safer,” Stavrou says. “One of the reasons we don’t have commercial fusion yet is that it is incredibly difficult to get the reaction to run for long periods of time; left on its own, it would just stop running. In addition, there will be only very small amounts of fuel in the reactor at any one time, and not larger amounts such as with fission. The advantages of fusion over fission extend to fuel security as well. The fuel is much more abundant and geographically dispersed – you can extract deuterium from water and you can generate tritium from lithium – so you don't get one or two potentially unstable countries controlling the world's supply. Because it's a nuclear process, it's very energy-dense, so you need very small amounts of fuel for very large amounts of energy. Take a large European country like the UK for instance; you would only need one truckload of lithium for an entire year’s supply of electricity. A country such as the UK would only need as little as one warehouse of lithium to ensure strategic reserves for a decade. So, if war breaks out, or if the lithium price fluctuates wildly, it will have minimal impact on electricity generation with fusion.”

At this point, I can only admit that the potential of fusion seems quite groundbreaking.

“Well, it has been called the holy grail of energy generation,” he replies, smiling. Stavrou says that he always knew that he wanted to be a physicist and climate change called out to the problem-solver in him. His first port of call was renewable energy but, he exclaims, “The numbers never added up!”, using his hands to express his frustration. So, he started looking at other options. “I discovered fusion and the more I looked into it, the more I realised that it was the answer. We're using 400 times more energy in electricity now than 120 years ago, and we expect this increase to continue. Look at the news, where Artificial Intelligence is the talk of the hour: in order for it to work and become the benefit that we all want it to be, we need huge amounts of energy; even Sam Altman, the CEO of OpenAI, has mentioned that we need fusion for this.”

As Stavrou goes on to explain, the last 140 years would not have been possible without the energy produced from fossil fuels. In the 1880s, life expectancy in advanced countries was 45 years, whereas it is now double that, in part because of the availability of electricity that is abundant and reliable. So, we now need to move to something else that is just as cheap, abundant and not harmful to the environment. “That is where fusion shines,” he says. “We consider fusion energy to be the most environmentally clean source of energy of all. You don't get any greenhouse gas generation, no long-lived radioactive waste – in fact, the only waste from a fusion power station would be helium, the gas that is used to fill kids’ balloons.”

Stavrou does admit that there are things we need to be aware of. “There will be tritium present in a future fusion power plant, and that is the main concern in terms of safety. We are still talking about small amounts of tritium, which is a very light radioactive isotope of hydrogen. As I mentioned, there would only be a few grams in the reactor at any one time, so in case of a human-induced incident, it would only release a few grams of gas into the atmosphere. However, we are very safety minded, so even that is being taken into account in reactor designs.”

Stavrou is not alone in his ambitions. Despite the countless sanctions imposed on Russia following its invasion of Ukraine, one relationship that still binds Russia, EU and USA is the ITER project. “ITER is the world's foremost public project on fusion and is actually a global effort” Stavrou explains. “Europe, the US, China, Japan, South Korea, India and Russia are all involved in this”. Research into how to initiate and control fusion reactions to produce useful energy began in the late 1940s and, for the first 50 years or so, was a public sector activity but since the 1990s, the private sector has entered the arena. “Those investing in fusion are looking into possibly saving the planet but they have also realised that this is a multi-trillion dollar industry,” Stavrou says and he reels off a list of his competitors and the private investment they have received; among others, Commonwealth Fusion Systems, more than $1.8 billion; Helion Energy, $500 million plus $1.7 billion in milestone-related commitments; and TAE technologies, $1.2 billion.

Stavrou has worked both in the public and private sectors. He found himself at the Joint European Torus (JET), the focal point of the European fusion research programme, and then at Tokamak Energy, one of the best funded private fusion companies in the world. “Delving into the sector was exhilarating. I felt like a kid in a candy store!” he recalls. However, he soon realised that both sectors had their distinct advantages and shortcomings, which ultimately inspired him to create Fusion Reactors in 2019. “None of it was easy,” he replies to my comment that he must have been fearless to jump ship. “When I was working at JET, I was living one of the dreams I had when I entered the fusion sector so, yes, it was a leap and it was scary but, at the end of the day, you have to run towards what you believe has to be done. And I want fusion electricity as soon as possible because we’re experiencing a climate emergency.”

Stavrou’s Fusion Reactors has received some angel investment and equipment from Imperial College London, which also supports the company through its Imperial Enterprise Lab and the Imperial Venture Mentoring Service. In fact, this caused him to change his plans as he had not expected to start a facility so early.

“We are beginning fundraising again and we are open to anyone wishing to angel-invest in Fusion Reactors; we have had investors who have invested anywhere from a few thousand euros to tens of thousands. Our ambition is to become the foremost and best private fusion company in the world and to attract people with the same passion to help save the planet.”

When I ask Stavrou whether he could see the future of his company in Cyprus, he tells me that, not only is he not opposed to it but it could attract more investment into the county and serve as inspiration for those who wish to be involved in STEM subjects. However, he notes that EU regulation on the matter remains something of a mystery. “The two countries that are the most advanced in setting up a regulatory framework are the US and the UK, so the concern would be if the EU’s regulatory framework might impede fast progress. We are hopeful that the EU will follow a similar path by making a very clear distinction between fission and fusion, to reflect that the latter is inherently much safer and therefore doesn't require the heavy-handed regulation that fission does.”

He goes on to express the view that Europe is falling behind in this area. As the saying goes, the US innovates and Europe regulates. “In the US, there is an understanding that, when you're innovating – which, by definition, means delving into the unknown and generating new knowledge – there’s going to be misfires; you have to explore what doesn't work before you get to what does work. In Europe, there is a fear of making a mistake and of trying anything that might not work. How do you address that? How do you bring about a change of risk appetite? I don't have an answer for that. I do know, however, that more and more private investors are investing in private fusion, with more than $6 billion invested already. They clearly believe that fusion is close to commercialisation.”

As we wind up our discussion, I remain overwhelmed by that nagging feeling of being close to a solution but not quite close enough to reach out and touch it. Dr. Christos Stavrou certainly understands and believes in the physics of fusion but is the world willing to take the plunge with it? That remains something for which, it seems, we still have to wait some time.

(Photo by TASPHO)

This interview first appeared in the April edition of GOLD magazine. Click here to view it.

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