The leafy village of Milton in Oxfordshire is an unlikely crucible for a green energy revolution that could power Britain’s homes for generations into the future. A commuter hideaway, down the road from Raymond Blanc’s double Michelin-starred Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, it is better known for its pretty period houses that could double as the set for a Miss Marple mystery.
Yet it is here, in a nondescript business park, that British start-up Tokamak Energy is racing to win a global battle against US billionaires to crack a scientific conundrum.
The puzzle is harnessing nuclear fusion – the energy that powers the sun and stars, and the opposite of the fission reactions found in conventional nuclear reactors.
Collision: Lord Wolfson, right, is taking on Jeff Bezos in the fusion race
The team that first produces fusion energy for powering our businesses and heating our homes will create lasting energy security as the West weans itself off Russian gas.
It will also create a new, green form of energy that – unlike wind and solar – does not fluctuate according to how much the sun shines or the wind blows.
The prize for investors is huge too. With profits expected to soar into billions of pounds from the 2030s, some of the biggest names on the British high street and a gaggle of billionaires across the Atlantic are pouring money into nuclear fusion firms.
In the British corner is retail giant Lord Wolfson, chief executive of high street chain Next, who The Mail on Sunday can reveal is the biggest individual shareholder in Tokamak Energy.
He is joined by hedge fund titan Sir David Harding; Swiss-German industrialist Hans-Peter Wild; chocolate brand heir Joel Cadbury; and cross-bench peers including former Tory chairman Lord Feldman and Baroness Mendelsohn, a powerful executive at Facebook owner Meta.
Chris Kelsall, the chief executive of Tokamak Energy, is evangelical in his belief that his firm will be the first to produce commercial fusion energy from the start of the next decade.
In March, Tokamak Energy’s prototype ST40 reactor achieved a major breakthrough when temperatures inside the chamber hit over 100million degrees Celsius for the first time – about seven times hotter than the centre of the sun.
But no material can contain the plasma where the fusion reaction takes place at this temperature. So the tokamak reactor is encased by powerful electromagnets, which keep the plasma away from the edge of the chamber so it swirls around in a doughnut shape. Until now, this has taken more energy than it produces.
Kelsall says: ‘Britain led the Industrial Revolution with the invention of the steam engine about 300 years ago. We are now on the cusp of a second industrial revolution in energy, which will be achieved when we pass over the threshold of fusion. We want Britain to be the world leader in commercial fusion technology and provide energy security for generations.’ But the world’s second richest man, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, has other ideas. He has invested a slice of his $150billion (£120billion) wealth into a Canadian firm building a demonstration fusion plant down the road from Tokamak at Culham, also in Oxfordshire.
General Fusion says its test plant will show net electricity generation fusion is possible by 2027. It aims to launch commercial fusion by the end of the decade, before rolling out plants across the world in the early 2030s, providing energy at a comparable price to fossil fuels.
Chief executive Chris Mowry says: ‘The easy parts of the solution to climate change, like wind energy, are in place. Now comes the hard part – powering the developing world and the future of cities. Only fusion can do that.’ Meanwhile, Microsoft founder Bill Gates – now a crusader for tackling climate change – is backing a fusion firm based in Massachusetts, called Commonwealth Fusion Systems.
Gates has backed the company through his Breakthrough Energy fund, whose investors also include Caribbean-based UK billionaire Sir Richard Branson; secretive Chinese billionaire Jack Ma, who is the founder of Asian e-commerce giant Alibaba; and Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, the Saudi Arabian investor who once bought Donald Trump’s yacht. In total, there are about 30 companies globally using varying techniques for nuclear fusion – the process by which two hydrogen atoms slam into one another and fuse into one heavier atom, generating energy.
Unlikely setting: Tokamak Energy’s reactor is near the village of Milton
The tipping point will come when the reactors generate more energy than they use.
Until then, there will be no shortage of investment opportunities. To help it get there by the early 2030s, Tokamak Energy plans to raise hundreds of millions of pounds from sovereign wealth funds and City investment firms later this year, adding to the £100million of private capital it has raised to date.
The money will be used to develop the super-strong magnets needed to contain the fusion reactions inside the tokamak chamber, and to build bigger reactors that can produce more energy.
Once a commercial pilot plant is up and running, the energy will be converted to electricity and connected to the national grid.
It could also be used to power heavy industry, such as manufacturing or steel plants, or create hydrogen through industrial-scale electrolysis – the splitting of water into hydrogen and oxygen.
Fusion produces no carbon dioxide emissions and can be powered by water and lithium – both globally abundant natural resources.
And, assuaging safety fears associated with conventional nuclear plants, Kelsall says the radioactive footprint of its current reactor is comparable to that of a dentist’s X-ray.
The involvement of Bezos and Branson, both last seen battling Tesla founder Elon Musk to launch the first commercial space flight, means fusion may be dubbed the next billionaire space race.
Now investors are on red alert to the climate crisis, Kelsall calls fusion the ‘final frontier’.
‘This is a critical mission for humanity,’ he says. ‘This is for our children and all future generations.’