Reviving the Fusion Dream

Private-Sector Project Teams Join the Search for Nuclear Energy's Holy Grail


The long search for nuclear energy's promised land is, once again, heating up. After decades of large government-backed projects becoming mired in delays, cost overruns and political uncertainty, private-sector startups are trying to develop scaled-down fusion power plants. If the projects go as planned, prototype power plants could be demonstrated within a decade.

General Fusion's control room

General Fusion's control room


“Large experimental facilities take a long time to construct and, once built, can be expensive to modify,” says Brendan Cassidy, project manager at General Fusion, a private venture developing power plant technology, Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada. “In the private sector, the focus must remain on developing a commercially viable power plant, which typically favors smaller and more practical designs.”

The potential benefits are massive. If researchers are successful in harnessing the energy created from combining hydrogen atoms at high temperatures, they could develop an emission-free, theoretically unlimited source of energy. That's why governments have long sponsored huge nuclear fusion projects—despite huge obstacles. Exhibit A: 35 countries are contributing to ITER in France, a fusion reactor project that began in 1985 and is projected to have its first fusion plasma test in 2025. Yet going big will come at a cost of roughly €18 billion, with huge delays and budget overruns to boot. The plasma test was initially projected to occur this year. In the meantime, governments including the United States have threatened to pull funding.

Given the long history of troubled fusion projects, who's funding the new private-sector initiatives? Tech billionaires. General Fusion has raised US$100 million from backers including Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. Helion Energy received funding from PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, and Tri Alpha Energy has US$500 million in backing from investors including Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.

These smaller nuclear fusion companies plan to apply the startup mentality that has disrupted so many other sectors. Part of their promise rests on the idea that agility, computer simulations and new technologies can help produce reactors and power plants at a fraction of the cost required in more major projects.

“An advantage of the private sector methodology is flexibility. Capital can be quickly reallocated between materials, staffing and other areas,” Mr. Cassidy says. “This gives private ventures the agility to iterate designs and move rapidly from conception to construction.”

During the last six years, he notes, General Fusion has built and operated 15 plasma systems at different scales and has been able to improve performance in new iterations by drawing on the lessons learned from each preceding system.

But some researchers scoff at private fusion projects. “To get funding, small companies have to promise the moon,” Glen Wurden, who leads a team at the plasma physics group at Los Alamos National Laboratory, Los Alamos, New Mexico, USA, told Fortune magazine. “When you hear a private company say it will have a technology in five years, you roll your eyes.”

There's reason for optimism though, says David Kingham, PhD, chief executive of Tokamak Energy, which has received over €10 million in financing. The company plans to assemble and test a compact spherical tokamak, a type of machine used to harness fusion energy, by the start of 2017. Based in Oxford, England, Dr. Kingham says that keeping prototypes small and treating fusion energy development “as a series of engineering challenges” can expedite the technology.

“We can take advantage of 50 years of scientific research while using new materials and techniques to make much faster progress,” Dr. Kingham says.
—Ambreen Ali




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