Bil­lion­aires chase fu­sion en­ergy goal

The Modesto Bee (Sunday) - - News - BY JONATHAN TIRONE Bloomberg

Not long be­fore he died, tech vi­sion­ary Paul Allen traveled to the south of France for a per­sonal tour of a 35-coun­try quest to repli­cate the work­ings of the Sun. The goal is to one day pro­duce clean, al­most lim­it­less en­ergy by fus­ing atoms to­gether rather than split­ting them apart.

The Mi­crosoft co-founder said he wanted to view the early stages of the In­ter­na­tional Ther­monu­clear Ex­per­i­men­tal Re­ac­tor in Cadarache first­hand, to wit­ness prepa­ra­tions “for the birth of a star on Earth.”

Allen wasn’t just a by­stander in the hunt for the holy grail of nu­clear power. He was among a grow­ing num­ber of ul­tra-rich clean-en­ergy ad­vo­cates pour­ing money into star­tups that are rush­ing to pro­duce the first com­mer­cially vi­able fu­sion re­ac­tor long be­fore the $23 bil­lion ITER pro­gram’s mid­cen­tury fore­cast.

Jeff Be­zos, Bill Gates and Peter Thiel are just three of the bil­lion­aires chasing what the late physi­cist Stephen Hawk­ing called hu­mankind’s most promis­ing tech­nol­ogy. Sci­en­tists have long known that fu­sion has the po­ten­tial to rev­o­lu­tion­ize the en­ergy in­dus­try, but de­vel­op­ment costs have been too high for all but a hand­ful of gov­ern­ments and in­vestors. Re­cent ad­vances in ex­otic ma­te­ri­als, 3D print­ing, ma­chine learn­ing and data pro­cess­ing are all chang­ing that.

“It’s the SpaceX mo- ment for fu­sion,” said Christofer Mowry, who runs the Be­zos-backed Gen­eral Fu­sion Inc. near Van­cou­ver, Bri­tish Columbia. He was re­fer­ring to Elon Musk’s reusable­rocket maker. “If you care about cli­mate change, you have to care about the time scale and not just the ul­ti­mate so­lu­tion. Gov­ern­ments aren’t work­ing with the ur­gency needed.”

The com­pany Allen sup­ported, TAE Tech­nolo­gies, stood alone when it was in­cor­po­rated as Tri-Al­pha En­ergy two decades ago. Now it has at least two dozen ri­vals, many fi­nanced by in­vestors with a track record of dis­rup­tion. As a re­sult, there’s been an ex­plo­sion of dis­cov­er­ies that are driv­ing the kind of com­pe­ti­tion needed for a trans­for­ma­tional break­through, ac­cord­ing to Mowry.

One of the clear­est mea­sures of progress in the field was on dis­play last week in Gand­hi­na­gar, In­dia, where the Vi­ennabased In­ter­na­tional Atomic En­ergy Agency held its bi­en­nial fu­sion fo­rum. The con­fer­ence high­lighted a record 800 peer­re­viewed re­search pa­pers, 60 per­cent more than a decade ago.

Fu­sion it­self isn’t the prob­lem. The tricky part is gen­er­at­ing more en­ergy than is used in the process. Such re­ac­tors have to mimic con­di­tions found only in deep space, a much more com­plex and costly en­deavor than fis­sion. Heat­ing plasma to tem­per­a­tures higher than those of stars and then con­tain­ing the en­su­ing re­ac­tions in­side cryo­genic cool­ing ves­sels can re­quire a mil­lion parts or more.

Even if com­mer­cial fu­sion takes longer than ex­pected to achieve, many in­no­va­tions pro­duced along the way will prove lu­cra­tive on their own, ac­cord­ing to IP Group, a Lon­don-based in­vestor in in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty. Re­search firms are al­ready mint­ing patents to pro­tect their cre­ations, from soft­ware that sim­u­lates plasma burn­ing at 150 mil­lion de­grees Cel­sius (270 mil­lion Fahren­heit) to a new type of mag­net that has ap­pli­ca­tions in health care.

“There’ll still be sig­nif­i­cant resid­ual value,” said Robert Tre­zona, who over­sees IP Group’s in­vest­ment in First Light Fu­sion, a com­pany near Ox­ford Uni­ver­sity whose ad­vi­sory board in­cludes for­mer U.S. En­ergy Sec­re­tary Steven Chu. “It would have been in­con­ceiv­able for a small com­pany like First Light to make ad­vance­ments in fu­sion sciences 20 years ago.”

JAMES MAC­DON­ALD Bloomberg

A small-scale plasma in­jec­tor at Gen­eral Fu­sion head­quar­ters in Burn­aby, Bri­tish Columbia, is at the heart of an at­tempt to safely gen­er­ate fu­sion en­ergy.

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