November 20, 2015
Fusion power has been making a lot of progress lately. That doesn’t necessarily mean any one approach has gotten a whole lot closer to its end goal of useful ignition and net energy production, but that many new, innovative attempts at achieving that same goal have all advanced to a point of general respectability.
It used to be that there were basically two technologies that might harness and use the power of a star. Now, there are almost as many approaches as there are fusion teams in the world. These small teams are getting by on speculation by large firms and, importantly, generous angel investors. Some of the tech world’s biggest names are betting on fusion — though even these visionaries can’t decide which tech will actually come through in the end.
The investors as varied as they are wealthy. PalPal cofounder Peter Thiel has backed Washington’s Helion Energy for an unspecified amount, while the just-slightly-rich Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen has poured money into Tri Alpha Energy in Irvine, California. The investment firm of Amazon’s Jeff Bezos is betting on Vancouver’s General Fusion. Others have started their own competitor, such investor Tom Darden’s startup Industrial Heat. Each of these solutions has raised tens of millions of dollars for their work.
It’s not all that surprising that so many personally wealthy people would see fusion as a good place to park some cash. If successful, any particular fusion experiment could very well be the most important experiment in history — the experiment that ends scarcity. Applied widely and equally, cheap, abundant, and clean mass power could save millions of lives, and potentially billions if carbon-driven climate change continues to progress as it has. It also has the potential for one of the best returns on investment ever — investing a few million in fusion might seem like a lot, but compared with the multi-billion-dollar government budgets that led to early fission reactors, it seems somewhat paltry.
The tipping point seems to be the technology. While there are certainly the aforementioned type of money-drenched government projects for fusion, things like America’s National Ignition Facility (NIF) and France’s International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), these teams don’t seem to be nimble enough to try the variety of ideas currently under investigation by the private sector. Some criticize smaller fusion companies for testing unproven or even disproven technology, but these companies fire back that they’ve found ways to make older technology new again.
One example is the aforementioned General Fusion, which has decided to combine two historical approaches to fusion. First, they apply a strong magnetic field to contain the sample while they heat it to a plasma, but they don’t heat the plasma far enough to cause fusion. Instead, they then take this plasma and subject it to the same sort of rapid compression that “inertial” fusion reactors use exclusively, but since the sample is already super-heated, it takes less power to begin the fusion reaction. General Fusion says that their technology is “proven” in principle, and that now only engineering challenges lie between their reactor and a net output of energy.
There’s no way to know if they’re right. Small tech companies like this, which will almost by definition deliver either the world or nothing at all, have to dream — and pitch — big. General Fusion’s claims are no more astute or seemingly impressive than those of Tri Alpha Energy, which recently acquired a purported “cold fusion” tech from controversial Italian inventor Andrea Rossi. Is that the ticket? Maybe.
Also, when many teams are all competing for similar and highly rewarding goals, it’s not unusual for “losing” ideas or companies to get bought up by the now-flush winners, folding in all the talent and small, good ideas the rest of the industry has to offer. In other words, you don’t necessarily have to back the winning horse to see a return — but someone, somewhere, does still have the pass the finish line.