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Leadership lessons: fusion energy

David Kingham, Founder & Executive Chairman of Tokamak Energy, talks to Simon Taylor of Cambridge Judge Business School about the development of fusion power.

Dr David Kingham believes that fusion energy can contribute to the world’s energy supply while helping to decarbonise the planet. He is the Founder & Executive Chairman of Tokamak Energy, which seeks to commercialise fusion power through a technique that uses superconducting magnets. Dr Kingham studied mathematics and theoretical physics at the University of Cambridge and worked in the scientific instruments industry before getting involved in the energy sector in 2009.

Dr Kingham was interviewed by Dr Simon Taylor, Faculty (Professor level) in Management Practice (Finance) at Cambridge Judge Business School, whose research often focuses on energy financing, for the latest in a webinar series – “CJBS Perspectives: Leadership in Unprecedented Times”, a series of talks and presentations from exceptional leaders, faculty and alumni, born of the challenging times in which we all currently find ourselves.

The series, which is organised by the Alumni & External Engagement and Executive Education teams at Cambridge Judge, brings together senior leaders together with CJBS faculty to discuss business trends and observations they have learned during this global pandemic in various sectors and geographies.

Here are some edited excerpts of the discussion:

Simon Taylor: Please tell us a bit about yourself, how you got interested in sustainable energy, and how this culminated in setting up Tokomak Energy.

David Kingham: After spending nine years in Cambridge I established a company called Oxford Innovation that built up a network of business incubators and then business angel networks around Oxford. It grew to 100 employees and merged with another company, and I then teamed with scientists from Culham Laboratory: we decided that fusion research was making slow progress in government laboratories and there should be a faster way forward to try to pursue this elusive goal of fusion energy and to do so on a more commercial basis. So in 2009 we established Tokamak Energy – Tokamak Solutions it was called then. A couple of years later we had a breakthrough with the latest generation of high-temperature superconducting magnets: we realised the implication was that this material could be used to make Tokamak’s conventional fusion devices smaller, more compact, more efficient. It opened up a whole new thought process of smaller devices, rapid incremental innovation cycles, and efficient end goal for fusion devices. Ten years on we now employ 120 people, have raised around £120 million, have pretty good support from the UK and US governments, but it’s still a long way to go before we have a deployable technology.”

Simon Taylor: For those less familiar with fusion technology, perhaps you could explain its benefits and strengths, and also the challenges of turning it into a practical energy source.

The attractiveness of fusion energy is, if it can be made to work, that it has all the advantages of conventional nuclear energy with none of the drawbacks. It’s inherently safe, production of radioactive waste can be minimised and essentially there’s no proliferation risk so global deployment of the technology is relatively feasible. The challenge is to make it work – and to demonstrate it can be made to work in a commercially viable manner for reasonable cost.

The basic idea of the technology is to bottle the sun. The sun and all stars are powered by fusion, and to try to replicate this on Earth we use a deuterium-tritium fuel mixture. The best technique for enabling that reaction to happen is to use a magnetic bottle. The plasma of deuterium-tritium has to be at very high temperature – 100 to 150 million degrees – so the particles are moving very fast. When they do collide they fuse together and produce very large amounts of energy. To get the pressure temperature right we need these very powerful magnetic fields which we now know can be provided by high temperature superconductors.

Simon Taylor: Most people who have come across fusion are probably familiar with the big government approach. What is the difference in Tokamak Energy’s approach?

Government laboratories tend to move slowly and tend to think large scale, long term, and if they build a new device it’s seen as a scientific research facility; it’s an expensive thing that will have a long lifetime. As an ambitious international expensive scientific collaboration that’s great, but as a quick way to get significant progress towards fusion power it’s not so great. Our challenge is to learn from physics and material science and plasma control monitoring that’s gone into public devices but to find a way to get similar performance from smaller, higher-magnetic-field devices. The whole innovation cycle we’re aiming at is months rather than years or decades.

Simon Taylor: Can you tell a bit more about Tokamak as a company and your role in it.

I was one of the founders of the business along with two scientists from Culham Laboratory. We set out thinking this is probably a scientific instruments business, not a fusion development business. But once we had done our first experiments with high-temperature superconducting magnets, we could see there was a big bold goal for the business, and we were fortunate to get private investment at the right sort of scale to back our vison of what can be achieved.

Simon Taylor: How do you see Tokomak Energy fitting in and contributing to a wider net zero energy economy which is the British government’s goal by 2050?

We see fusion energy as a candidate technology for the deep decarbonisation challenge of the 2030s and 2040s. There are lots of technical challenges we have to overcome, but we think it is feasible to demonstrate electricity into the grid by 2030 and to have plans in place and collaborations in place to enable rapid deployment of that technology during the 2030s. The scale-up challenge to make a real difference is very great, but if we get our development technology right it’s a very attractive technology for the future.