Helion Energy, a US company going through private funding is on track to demonstrate net electricity from nuclear fusion energy in 2024.

Surprised this hasn't taken the Effective Altruism movement, nor had the news of ITER being on track within a few years for EU side demonstration.

Clean, practically unlimited energy, resistant to tail end civilization ending risk like large impact events or volcanic winters.

Desalinization may be feasible for more billions of people in this case.

Nuclear Fusion (unlike fission) has no risk of fallout and byproducts are logistically easy to manage vs alternatives.

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I agree that fusion is feasible and will likely account for a large fraction (>20%) of energy supply by the end of the century, if all goes well. I agree that would be pretty great. And yeah, Helion looks promising.

But I don't think we should be updating much on headlines about achieving ignition or breakeven soon. In particular, I don't think these headlines should be significantly shifting forecasts like this one from Metaculus about timelines to >10% of energy supply coming from fusion. The main reason is that there is a very large gap between proof of concept and a cost-competitive supply of energy. Generally speaking, solar will probably remain cheaper per kWh than fusion for a long time (decades), so I don't expect the transition to be very fast.

It's also unclear what this should all mean for EA. One response could be: "Wow, a world with abundant energy would be amazing, we should prioritise trying to accelerate the arrival of that world." But, I don't know, there's already a lot of interested capital flying around — it's not like investors are naive to the benefits. On the government side, the bill for ITER alone was something in the order of $20 billion.

Another response could be: "Fusion is going to arrive sooner than we expected,  so the world is soon going to look different from what we expected!" And I'd probably just dispute that the crowd (e.g. the Metaculus forecast above) is getting it especially wrong here in any action-relevant way. But I'd be delighted to be proved wrong.

Another response could be that abundant energy means more destructive power for humanity, and so even more risks.

Though in reality I do tend towards the "sounds good but there's nothing we in particular should do about it" side.

Isn’t there some meme about fusion always being right around the corner, but never materializing? Of course, I think it may be reasonable to expect fusion some time this century, but a “within 5 years” headline seems really bullish.

I think a few things that are different this time are that

  1. It's a company, not just a research group.
  2. The timeline is actually 2 years. They could be lying or over optimistic, but assuming they aren't lying, they probably have a somewhat concrete path to net electricity in mind, or at least have good reason to believe they're very close. They haven't given themselves a lot of time for further R&D. Previous projections probably naively extrapolated 10+ years out.

I remember hearing in 2018 about orders of millions of potentially autonomous cars by some companies (Intel?) intended for autonomous use in 2021, and we're not even close to that now. Fusion in the near term on some scale seems plausible, but the fact that a company is claiming a very close timeline isn't very indicative of the actual timeline, I think.

What do you think this implies for global priorities? When do you expect nuclear fusion to be competitive in developing countries? Why is this Metaculus  forecast so pessimistic?

I think fusion is great, but it will probably take some time to have a real impact.

Even if they get net energy generated (which may very well be possible but I'm skeptical), that's still a very long path toward viable commercial generation at scale when you consider the supply chains you'd have to establish for stuff like tritium fuel cycles, all these special magnets, general manufacturing of reactor components and other infrastructure-esque issues. Not to mention, the kinds of materials that can withstand the radiation damage you'd have while the fusion reactor is in operation in the long term do not yet exist. Then if we're talking about building any reactors in the US, we have to take into account the US' abysmal record in building any kind of large infrastructure and factor in the (likely) overrun costs in construction.

And tbh, at this point, the LCOEs of even renewables+storage are becoming pretty viable so aside from the coolness factor, fusion might have some supporting role to play but I honestly just don't find it that exciting anymore.

Fin's comment sums things up pretty well.

See more on the economics of fusion:

For those who didn't bother to click the link, this is pretty important information: it's backed by Sam Altman, Dustin Moskovitz and (at least indirectly, through Mithril Capital) Peter Thiel.

We are excited to announce that Helion has raised $500 million from Sam Altman with participation from our other existing investors, Mithril Capital, Capricorn Investment Group, and Dustin Moskovitz. We thank all of our investors who participated in this round of funding. Their belief in a future of clean, zero-carbon electricity from fusion is inspiring and we are incredibly proud to have their support.

It might be worth including this in the post, or even just quote the whole text of the article into the EA Forum post, since it's short, anyway.