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Italy’s Eni defies sceptics, may up stake in nuclear fusion project

The interior of the fusion experiment Alcator C-Mod at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, the US. Photo: Reuters

The interior of the fusion experiment Alcator C-Mod at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, the US. Photo: Reuters

Italian energy group Eni is considering stepping up its investment in nuclear fusion, potentially doubling down on a tech­nology considered so uncertain that Eni remains the only global oil company prepared to place a bet on it.

Eni and bigger rivals such as Shell and BP have been looking at moving into renewable energy as climate change, the falling cost of solar and wind power, and a shift to electric vehicles raise doubts over long-term demand for oil.

Eni last month committed €50 million to one of several projects aiming to produce energy by fusing atoms at temperatures as hot as the sun, a process seen by doubters as still closer to science fiction than commercial reality.

After the move, Eni’s head of development operations and technology, Roberto Casula, said it might raise its investment in Commonwealth Fusion System, a firm created by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which is developing the project.

“After the transition to renewable energy, the real breakthrough technologically is nuclear fusion,” Casula said, adding that the process involved recreating the physics of the sun, producing heat but no emissions and very limited nuclear waste.

Casula estimates it will cost $3 billion to develop a 200-megawatt fusion reactor by 2033 and says Commonwealth Fusion System is looking to raise more funds and to draw up an overall investment agreement with a range of financiers.

Casula and MIT declined to give the size of Eni’s current stake, and the Eni executive could not say at this stage how much it would be ready to invest. He said Eni had signed a deal giving it the right to use the project’s intellectual property.

“The eventual stake we’ll have in the company will be decided when there is an overall investment agreement, depending also on how much they will raise,” Casula said.

The MIT project is vying with research teams in France, China and Britain to develop a reactor that can generate more energy than the enormous amount that fusion consumes, and can also safely contain a mass of super-hot gases or plasma.

Italy also recently entered the race, though Eni is sticking with MIT, saying the Boston project is unique in its aim to produce electricity, while others have scientific objectives.

All projects are based on a system known as tokamak, which uses superconducting magnets to hold the plasma at temperatures of up to 100 million de­grees, suspending it inside a vacuum chamber without it touching the chamber’s walls.

To make electricity, heat from the fusion of hydrogen isotopes is used to spin steam turbines in the conventional way.

The France-based International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) pro­ject is the largest endeavour, with a budget of around €20 billion. A collaboration between Europe, the US, China, India, Japan, Russia and South Korea, it is more than halfway towards the first test of its super-heated plasma by 2025 and first full-power fusion by 2035.

Unlike the MIT project, the  ITER team does not plan to gene­rate electricity, saying this will be done in future, and is being supported by governments, not the private sector.

“Based on our experience with the ITER project, we feel the MIT timeline to have a power plant in 15 years is very ambitious, if not overly ambitious,” ITER chief scientist Tim Luce said.

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