Billionaires chase fusion energy goal
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.”
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.