What Does Silicon Valley Have to Do with Fusion Energy?

ForbesTom Gillis DEC 15, 2015

Recently I went to an event and met a group of senior government and industry people. They were on a mission to Silicon Valley so they can better understand how it works. But it turns out I learned a few things about physics and the future of humanity.

Another company present at the event was Tri Alpha Energy. They’re building fusion energy technology which can perhaps best be described as totally badass. Fusion is the process of combining elements to release energy—it’s the process that powers stars. Tri Alpha has been working on fusion-powered electricity for nearly 20 years, and some experts don’t anticipate commercial fusion to happen until the 2040s. However, Tri Alpha has a very disciplined, milestone-based development approach, which involves taking a giant problem and breaking it down into a series of more digestible (albeit still very challenging) steps.

News reports indicate that Tri Alpha recently hit an important milestone, in which they can sustain a stable plasma cloud at will for a much longer period of time than anyone else has been able to do. Plasma is the fourth state of matter—a superheated gas that sheds electrons. Plasma is required to create fusion, but sustaining a plasma cloud is very, very difficult. Until recently companies have had a tough time stabilizing plasma; now Tri Alpha has demonstrated that they can sustain plasma for many milliseconds, limited only by the energy constraints of their test machine. They use field-reversed superconducting magnets to contain and balance the plasma cloud. This process does not yield fusion, but sustaining a plasma cloud is like stabilizing the platform that will ultimately yield fusion.

Will these guys be successful? I don’t know. But if they are, it’s literally going to change mankind. The fusion process being pursued by Tri Alpha is clean, safe and reliable. The ingredients Tri Alpha will use are plentiful and cheap (hydrogen and boron) and the outputs are energy and helium (a useful substance for MRI machines, semiconductors, and many more applications).

Earth’s population is projected to go from 6 billion to 9 billion people in the next four decades. There’s evidence that the planet can’t sustain 9 billion people—all clamoring for energy, food, and affluence—with current technology. We have to find some sort of breakthrough energy source and food source. It’s really exciting and encouraging to see smart people working on this challenge.

It’s also encouraging to see investors willing to put substantial amounts of capital to work on such a monumental undertaking. Tri Alpha has raised hundreds of millions in capital to date. A business that might take decades to return a profit is not for the fainthearted investor. However, the value that a fusion reactor could unlock for society is so massive it’s hard to measure in dollars.

I’m not inventing fusion technology, but I often feel like I’m working on the computer science equivalent. My team is trying to fundamentally change the way computers work in the enterprise, by separating policy enforcement infrastructure from the capacity that powers all of the enterprise’s software. By separating the two, we can now view data centers as “pools of capacity” that can reside either in a customer’s private cloud or in one of many public cloud providers. A software infrastructure layer frees the enterprise applications to “float” on top of any cloud. The rigid constraints of box-based data center systems (firewalls, storage arrays, switches) is now melted away, and the data center becomes a fluid pool of compute power that can be turned up or down as required on a moment’s notice.

This task is not easy. It requires making a superfast, lightweight virtualization layer—software that sits right in the firing line of every application that runs. It can’t have a “bad hair” day—it needs to be show ready all the time. We’ve spent years developing this technology and it’s more challenging than I ever anticipated. But it’s working. And one of the reasons it works is that we are enabled to make it work. We are fortunate enough to have investors who are looking for the big ideas that can really make an impact.

Without long-term investors like these, I would be forced to aim for more short-term returns, which often yield more incremental products—a slightly faster version of what exists today. With the right investors, I can aim for larger, harder, but potentially much more valuable technology—technology like fusion reactors.