TAE rearranges its leadership and gets ready for next chapter in fusion quest backed by Paul Allen

Geek Wire by Alan Boyle on July 17, 2018

Michl Binderbauer is moving up from chief technology officer to chief executive officer at California-based TAE Technologies, formerly known as Tri Alpha Energy. (PPPL / TAE Photo)

TAE Technologies, the fusion energy venture backed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and other heavy-hitters, is elevating Michl Binderbauer to CEO and bringing former General Electric CEO Jeff Immelt onto its board of directors.

The California-based company’s former CEO, Steven Specker, will stay on as a board member and adviser. And Mark Lewis, who joined the company as chief business officer last year, has been appointed president.

In an interview, Binderbauer told GeekWire that the executive change-over has been “amicable,” and will set the stage for the next chapter in TAE’s efforts to tame nuclear fusion and capitalize on technological spin-offs along the way.

Binderbauer was trained as a plasma physicist and has served as chief technology officer at TAE Technologies, formerly known as Tri Alpha Energy, since 1998. Now he’s nearing 50 and says he’s been properly seasoned for the CEO role.

“We’re not about software and apps, so people in their 20s and 30s aren’t taken seriously until you have some gray hairs,” he joked. “We all felt that this was a good time.”

TAE may not be about smartphone apps, but the venture is about high-tech: The company is working on a novel approach to fusion power that involves generating rings of super-high-temperature plasma and using directed particle beams to stabilize them.

The beam technology already has led to a spin-out called TAE Life Sciences, which is working on cancer-fighting applications. Binderbauer said the first clinical system is on track for delivery to a Chinese customer in the first half of 2019.

Another spin-out is expected to commercialize the power management system that was developed for TAE’s latest plasma generator. “This could have very interesting opportunities in the electric vehicle space,” Binderbauer said.

But the main focus is on proving out TAE’s fusion technology. Binderbauer said the plasma machine — which has been nicknamed “Norman” in honor of the company’s late co-founder, Norman Rostoker — has been taken offline temporarily for an upgrade that’s expected to double its beam power levels.

Norman is due to return to service in September, and continue a campaign to show TAE’s technology can get the plasma hot enough for a fusion reaction that produces a net energy gain.

“We’re firing on all cylinders, so to speak,” Binderbauer said.

Binderbauer is already thinking about the next machine, which will be nicknamed Copernicus. TAE’s current facilities in Foothill Ranch, Calif., won’t be big enough to accommodate Copernicus, so Binderbauer and his team will be looking for an expansion site.

Norman plasma machine
TAE Technologies’ Norman plasma generator is pushing the envelope in fusion research. (TAE Technologies Photo)

TAE’s technological roadmap calls for Copernicus to attain net energy gain in the first half of the 2020s. There are lots of ways to define that milestone. Binderbauer’s definition focuses on “engineering gain,” which means that the total energy produced by the plasma generator exceeds the total energy put into the generator.

Copernicus won’t have a “back end” to convert the heat energy into electricity, but the net gain should be enough to account for the reduction in energy that such a conversion would involve, Binderbauer said.

He said the engineering innovations developed for Copernicus would be folded into a demonstration fusion reactor that could be built in the late 2020s.

Over the past 20 years, TAE has brought in hundreds of millions of dollars in funding from investment firms such as Paul Allen’s Vulcan Capital, the Rockefeller family’s Venrock firm, Goldman Sachs, Rusnano and New Enterprise Associates.

Immelt, who left his post at GE last year, is a venture partner at New Enterprise Associates — and is now a welcome addition to TAE’s board as well.

“This is just the right moment to bring somebody like him into the fold, as we’re transitioning from mostly science-based work to these other dimensions,” Binderbauer said.

Binderbauer said TAE is currently working on its next financing round, and is beginning to engage in talks about potential public-private partnerships as well. “I’m very confident we’ll be able to announce something later in the year” or early next year, he said.

The next few years could also bring advances on other fronts in the fusion quest.

In Redmond, Wash., Helion Energy is working on its own approach to small-scale fusion power, with backing from PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel’s Mithril Capital and other firms. Just outside Vancouver, B.C., General Fusion is making progress, fueled in part by investments from Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos.

The bigfoot in the fusion race is the 35-nation ITER project (formerly known as the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor), which is taking shape in southern France. The construction phase is expected to be finished by 2025 at a total estimated cost of more than $20 billion.

GeekWire aerospace and science editor Alan Boyle is an award-winning science writer and veteran space reporter. Formerly of NBCNews.com, he is the author of “The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference.”