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Bottling the sun to save the earth: Q&A with Professor David Gann


Sun, 07/02/2023 - 12:00


Fusion fuels are the densest power known to science, says Prof David Gann, and may be a key renewable energy source in the race to net-zero by 2050 and beyond.

Whether it’s harnessing wind, water, or sun, renewable energy options abound today. One in particular has a bad reputation: nuclear fission. Harnessing the power of atoms by splitting them apart comes with risks, evident in the Chernobyl accident in 1986 and, most recently, the Fukushima meltdown in 2011.  

But fission is only one side of the nuclear coin. Fusion, a process whereby atomic nuclei are combined, is high-yield, clean, and relatively safe. There’s just one problem: the reaction requires a temperature of at least 100 million degrees, some seven times hotter than the centre of the sun.  

As Professor David Gann CBE, Pro-Vice-Chancellor of Development & External Affairs at the University of Oxford, puts it: this is like “trying to bottle the sun”. A key figure in the nuclear fusion space, Prof Gann is the current Chairman of the UK Atomic Energy Authority, a position he has held since 2018, and a university and business leader with extensive global experience in innovation strategy and technology management.  


Prof David Gann with Business Times correspondent Sharanya Pillai.

Business Times correspondent Sharanya Pillai was invited to moderate the SGInnovate CEO Firestarter chat with Prof Gann. They covered fusion energy, its potential, pitfalls and where it's headed next. Here are some key takeaways from their discussion: 

1. What makes fusion so promising?

Nuclear power plants, including fusion plants, are the only power source that can be put anywhere. It does not rely on a lot of resources to operate, and its usable day and night. Not many energy sources have so few supply chains or requirements, such as environmental constraints.  

Given what we can see of its capabilities, it’s plausible that 25 per cent of the world’s baseload could be powered by fusion by the end of the century. Bear in mind that fusion produces a very high grade of heat that you can do all sorts of other things with. You could create the hydrogen economy with a fusion machine without depleting the planet’s resources.  

Watch the full discussion here.

2. What are some of the challenges and opportunities for fusion energy in the next few years?

The biggest challenge is not money or science, but the availability of talent. The main workforce in the fusion side of the atomic energy authorities is projected to require another 3,000 people in the next three to five years. Those numbers do not sound that big, but it is going to be really tough to find people who specialise in fusion.