Nuclear fusion isn’t as far away as you think

Nuclear fusion isn’t as far away as you think

Tri City Herald By Jim Conca | July 14, 2018

Pacific Northwest National Laboratory operated by Battelle in Richland. Tri-City Herald file

On Feb. 22, 2016, Bill Gates said that an “energy miracle is coming and it is going to change the world.”

He was talking about nuclear energy.

Gates formed a nuclear engineering company a few years back, in Bellevue, to design and build a game-changing reactor that can burn old reactor fuel, and get ten times the energy from it, without making waste that is hot for thousands of years. Gates recently partnered with the China National Nuclear Corporation to get it off the ground.

But Demitri Hopkins has taken this idea to another level. Co-Founder of AGNI Energy Inc., a startup company out of Olympia, the 25-year-old Hopkins is something of a physics and mathematical savant. He won the International Science Fair in high school and was invited to meet President Obama. At that time, Hopkins recognized global warming as an existential threat having no practical solution.

So he set out to create one, originally enlisting the help of engineer Eric Thomas. Graduate students Aidan Klemmer and Neil Leonard joined Hopkins a year ago to form AGNI Energy. Their reactor design combines the stability of magnetic containment with beam to target inertial fusion.

AGNI is in good company in Washington State. The Pacific Northwest seems to be a magnet for innovative and traditional nuclear power. Gates’ TerraPower is only an hour drive from AGNI.

Energy Northwest, in Richland, has been the most reliable generator of electricity in the Pacific Northwest for decades, with nuclear, hydro, wind and solar generating well over 9 billion kilowatt hours each year, and has the best safety record of any business within a thousand miles.

NuScale Power in Corvallis, Ore., is on track to build the first small modular nuclear reactor in America faster than expected. General Fusion, based in British Columbia, is not far away either, and recently fired up the world’s largest and most powerful plasma injector at its facilities in Vancouver, ten times more powerful than its predecessor.

Helion Energy in Redmond is also pursuing fusion technology and is focused on developing small scale, efficient and near-term units. And CTFusion in Seattle is developing a fusion reactor as well, using a process called imposed-dynamo current drive, spinning off from the University of Washington’s Aerospace Department.

Columbia Basin Consulting Group in Kennewick is developing a Lead-Bismuth fast reactor that gets ten times the energy out of the same amount of uranium and has a much easier waste stream to deal with.

And Premier Technology, a manufacturer for the nuclear industry, just broke ground on an expansion of its facilities in Blackfoot, Idaho.

In addition, Oregon State University and Washington State University have two of the few research reactors in the country.

Not to mention the big Department of Energy sites and national laboratories at Hanford and Idaho Falls, including Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and Idaho National Laboratory.

We’ve always been told that fusion energy is 30 years away. But after some small tests of this system, Hopkins quickly realized it’s not 30 years away any more.

Jim Conca is a longtime resident and scientist in the Tri-Cities, a trustee of the Herbert M. Parker Foundation, and a science contributor to Forbes at forbes.com/sites/jamesconca.