Commercial fusion ventures learn lessons about engineering and expectations

Geek Wire by Alan Boyle on February 14, 2018

The promise of natural gas, shale oil, renewable energy and conventional nuclear power all pale in comparison to the promise of clean, potentially abundant fusion power — and that’s attracting increasing attention from science-savvy entrepreneurs.

General Fusion says it has the world’s largest and most powerful plasma injector, capable of creating a ring of hydrogen plasma 6 feet in diameter and heating it to millions of degrees. This machine is a prototype of the fuel injector for a fusion power plant. (General Fusion Photo)

Almost two dozen private ventures are trying to crack the fusion challenge, backed by a combined total of more than a billion dollars of private investment, said Chris Mowry, the CEO of Vancouver, B.C.-based General Fusion. (One Seattle venture, CTFusion, is currently looking for lab space.)

Mowry drew parallels to the enthusiasm sparked by SpaceX in the launch industry.

“I feel like this is the SpaceX moment for fusion,” he said today at a Seattle breakfast session on commercial fusion ventures, organized by the CleanTech Alliance.

But when you ask about the time frame for commercializing fusion power, the answers get squishier. And there’s good reason for that.

On one hand, there’s the old joke that fusion is the energy solution of the future, and always will be. On the other hand, it’s tempting for business entrepreneurs to predict that their systems will start showing a net energy gain within, say, three years.

Helion Energy CEO David Kirtley, General Fusion CEO Chris Mowry and TAE Technologies CEO Steven Specker discuss commercial fusion ventures at a CleanTech Alliance forum in Seattle. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

Helion Energy

That’s basically what David Kirtley, the CEO of Redmond, Wash.-based Helion Energy, told The Wall Street Journal three and a half years ago. “If our physics hold, we hope to reach that goal in the next three years,” he said at the time.

Today, he said he’s learned to be more careful about giving timelines.

“There’s always another assumed answer, which is that you have a business case you have to make as well,” he told GeekWire. “You’re making assumptions about engineering and physics, but you’re also making funding assumptions.”

Funding is looking up for Helion: The company raised $10.6 million in a Series B round in 2015, and has also benefited from millions of dollars in federal research grants.

Deuterium plasma glows inside the injectors of Helion Energy’s Venti system during early testing. The plasma is accelerated and sent into the main compression region between the injectors. (Helion Energy Photo)

Helion’s fifth-generation plasma machine, nicknamed Venti (as in a Starbucks coffee cup size), went into operation last year. “Venti aims to compress a plasma target to 20 Tesla and to fusion temperatures,” Kirtley said in a follow-up email.

The sixth-generation machine (Trenta?) is already being designed. And Kirtley expects the seventh-generation machine to hit net energy gain. Just don’t ask him when.

“We’re working on it,” he said.

General Fusion

General Fusion’s Mowry is willing to be a bit more specific: In December, the Canadian company announced that its plasma injector, billed as the world’s largest, generated its first plasma.

Mowry said his team is now considering four potential sites for a demonstration machine that will get 70 percent of the way toward General Fusion’s plasma power goal. The winning site will be selected by the end of the year, he said, and the plan calls for a five-year period of construction and operation.

If General Fusion’s next machine gets to its targeted 70 percent level, “we may decide at the end to just crank up the wick” and see how close it can come to achieving net energy gain.

But he said it’ll be up to the next, next machine to demonstrate commercial power generation, probably sometime in the next decade or so.

Mowry has no doubt that break-even fusion is possible: The multinational, multibillion-dollar ITER experiment in France is expected to demonstrate that by the late 2020s.

“The question really isn’t, ‘Can you achieve break-even?’” he told GeekWire. “Investors buy the thesis that fusion works.” (One of those investors is Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos.)

“The real challenge is, from a practicality perspective, ‘Can you develop an economic way to achieve net energy out?’” Mowry said.

TAE Technologies

California-based TAE Technologies (formerly known as Tri Alpha Energy) has been working on that challenge for almost 20 years, thanks in part to an early investment from Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. Today TAE says it’s taken in more than $500 million in venture capital to date.

Last week, TAE announced that its fifth-generation machine, nicknamed Norman (after the company’s late co-founder, Norman Rostoker), has exceeded the performance of its fourth-generation machine.

“We are looking over the next 12 months to reach the milestone that Norman was designed for,” TAE Technologies CEO Steven Specker told GeekWire. TAE is targeting plasma temperatures in excess of 50 million degrees Celsius (90 million degrees Fahrenheit).

That would be the “the trigger for the next machine,” Specker said.

Like General Fusion, TAE has begun considering construction sites for the next machine, which Specker expects will demonstrate net energy gain.

Plasma temperatures would go to 150 million degrees C (270 million degrees F, hot enough for deuterium-tritium fusion), and then to 3 billion degrees C (5.4 billion degrees F) for the cleaner hydrogen-boron fusion reaction that TAE is shooting for.

Could Washington state provide the site for TAE Technologies’ HQ2? “I wouldn’t rule it out or in,” Specker said. “I admire what Amazon is doing in their search for a new headquarters. It will be a competitive process.”

Construction would start in 2020. “We are working now on conceptual designs, and we are already talking with potential supplies of key components, because as you would expect, there are some long lead-time items,” Specker said.

That roadmap suggests that TAE might aim to demonstrate net energy gain in the mid- to late 2020s, but Specker declined to speculate. “My view is, you take it one step at a time,” he said.

In the meantime, TAE is capitalizing on spin-off technologies.

A recently formed (and somewhat stealthy) sister company called TAE Life Sciences is looking into cancer-fighting applications for the particle beams that have been developed to stabilize Norman’s football-shaped plasma clouds. And TAE plans to commercialize the power management system it’s developed as well.

“It turns out this has potentially very attractive applications in energy storage and electric vehicles,” Specker said.

Specker said TAE may have other spin-offs up its sleeve as the company works to make its fusion dream come true. “We like the word ‘disruptive,’” he told GeekWire.

Now that sounds like a SpaceX moment.