European industrial giants join nuclear fusion race

European industrial giants have joined the race to create cleaner energy through nuclear fusion, a nascent industry pioneered primarily in the US. Munich-based Marvel Fusion has signed partnerships with Dax-listed Siemens Energy, France’s Thales and the privately owned German mechanical engineering group Trumpf, while also raising €35mn in a funding round led by tech investor Earlybird.

Interest in nuclear fusion technology, a promising process that does not produce long-lasting radioactive waste and carries no risk of reactor meltdowns, has been hotting up in recent months. Last year, the sector attracted more than €2.3bn in venture capital funding, predominantly for companies based in the US. Unlike current nuclear power generation, which is based on fission, fusion could provide a virtually limitless energy supply with a very low environmental footprint.

In theory, a fusion plant the size of a football field could even power a city as large as London. But although the technology has been around since Soviet scientists tried using it in the 1950s, to date none of the few dozen nuclear fusion companies worldwide have been able to achieve it while producing more electricity than the complex process consumes.

Marvel Fusion claims its method, which uses lasers to trigger atomic reactions rather than magnets and extreme heat, will make the process commercially viable in a few years’ time. “It’s a theoretical model, which is essentially a very large computer simulation, and then step by step it is being validated in an experimental campaign that started last year,” Marvel Fusion chief executive Moritz von der Linden told the Financial Times, adding that the validation should be completed in two to three years.

“If it works, it is the Holy Grail.” The company, which was founded in 2019, said its technology was based on the breakthrough by 2018 Nobel Prize winners Donna Strickland and Gérard Mourou, who “succeeded in creating ultrashort high-intensity laser pulses without destroying the amplifying material”. Most other nuclear fusion start-ups use a process called magnetic confinement and some have attracted large sums from investors. In December, American start-up Commonwealth Fusion Systems secured nearly $2bn from backers, including Tiger Global Management and Bill Gates, a few weeks after competitor Helion raised $500mn from Peter Thiel’s investment vehicle and Silicon Valley investor Sam Altman, among others.

Marvel Fusion’s partners are among those hoping that Europe’s existing laser technology expertise could help companies on the continent catch up. Europe “can probably have a breakthrough by doing this with lasers”, said Thales’ director of laser activities, Franck Leibreich. But he added: “Right now we are more in the feasibility stage. We need to demonstrate that the fusion is possible physically, not just on paper.”

Energy independence in Europe has also risen to the top of the political agenda in recent weeks, with fears mounting that gas supplies from Russia could be cut off or reduced in the event of conflict in Ukraine. Germany, which is due to close down its last three nuclear plants in the next year, needs clean technologies to make up for the lost capacity. Peter Leibinger, chief technology officer at Marvel Fusion’s new partner Trumpf, said the family-run company was “pleased to jointly develop this important technology” because “fusion is an essential component of the energy sovereignty of Europe and Germany”.

But von der Linden said Marvel Fusion, which is launching another funding round this year, would “need significantly more money” for laser developments and warned that a prototype power plant — that would cost billions of euros — would have to be backed by public investment too. “Europe has to step up its game,” he added.