US supermajor Chevron has thrown its weight behind a compatriot start-up to join a growing rank of oil giants investing in nuclear fusion — a process seen by some as the energy transition’s magic bullet but viewed with scepticism by others.
Chevron Technology Ventures made an undisclosed series A investment in Zap Energy, one of a plethora of global specialists aiming to make commercial fusion power – and its promise of unlimited zero-carbon energy on tap – a reality in time to make an impact on climate change, promising a more reliable supply source than intermittent wind and solar.
Zap Energy claims to have developed an innovative method to achieve the ‘confinement’ of a plasma to compress hydrogen atoms so they collide – so achieving the fusion that releases substantial amounts of energy that can be tapped.
Instead of confining the plasma using magnets or lasers — as favoured by other fusion specialists — Zap Energy reckons its use of ‘sheared flow’ electric currents offers a cheaper and faster route to a commercial reactor.
Seattle-based Zap Energy is commercialising technology developed at the University of Washington and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and counts fossil energy veteran Frank Chapman — the former chief executive of BG Group, which was acquired by Shell —among its independent directors.
By investing, Chevron joins Norwegian state-controlled Equinor and Italian major Eni among the oil industry’s backers of fusion. The latter two are both investors in another technology start-up called Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS ), which also counts Bill Gates among its backers.
'Low-carbon future energy source'
“We see fusion technology as a promising low-carbon future energy source,” said Barbara Burger, president of Chevron Technology Ventures.
Fusion is regarded by some as the key missing piece of the puzzle that can solve the intermittency issue around renewable generators such as wind and solar.
Despite the optimism around the technology, the sheer complexity of the physics involved has made research in the field the subject of an industry joke that “fusion is always 40 years away”.
There is also almost no visibility over the cost of energy produced by fusion or the plants needed to achieve it, and many argue that the massive falls in wind and solar power prices, allied with storage technologies, smart networks and the massive potential of green hydrogen, will make fusion economically unviable before it is even born.
San Ramon, California-based Chevron itself is seen as a laggard in renewables compared to European peers such as Shell or Total. However, in July it did make its biggest move yet into green power when it signed an agreement with US wind and solar generator Algonquin Power & Utilities to co-develop at least 500 ,egawatts of renewables over the next four years