The Financial Power behind Fusion Power
These Guys Are Slowing Climate Change AND Making Money
The race is on to deliver the first renewable nuclear power plant. You read that right. These are real. They use water as fuel. These plants operate by fusion of hydrogen nuclei obtained from water, specifically heavy water. This is current science, not science fiction. To be precise, several fusion power plants are in various stages of development. They are not producing electric power but are moving rapidly toward that goal. You might be surprised at who is making it happen.
There is a saying about putting your money where your mouth is. Apparently, plenty of investors have recently been doing just that. They see this technology as real. They range from Elon Musk, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson, Michael Bloomberg, Ray Dalio, and Jack Ma to funds including Venrock, Google, Devonshire, Fidelity, Thistledown (Spotify ventures), and Charles Schwab.
Many countries also believe and are taking an active part both with investments and personnel. They are China, Japan, South Korea, Russia, India, and the EU. The United States is contributing through ARPA-E — the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy. While many support their own startups, they also contribute to a large joint project called ITER.
The reasons are clear. No uranium. No plutonium. No nuclear waste. No meltdowns or explosions. No greenhouse gas emissions.
The only byproduct is helium. This is not some recent discovery. It dates to the 1920s. But it’s only in the last decade that this technology has accelerated and it’s because of major discoveries in materials and computing. I’ve written in more detail about this on Medium, in May 2021.
I live near Lake Michigan where we have two nuclear reactors within a short drive. Both are on the Lake, using its water for cooling. One is north of our home, and one is south. We would love to see these replaced by fusion power plants. We could forget about the evacuation plans and safety procedures that are part of our lives. And we would not have the nagging concern about how they are transporting and storing the tons of highly radioactive waste. We could relax In the knowledge that they would not be adding to the forces behind global warming.
Driving Rapidly into the Future
Although work is proceeding in many places, I’ve identified five places where it is moving on a large scale and with speed.
1. International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER)
The name says a lot. The fact that it is part of a global effort to bring thermonuclear reactors into existence is great. The fact that it is called “experimental” says to me that it is becoming an increasingly a valuable source of guidance for the emerging industry. ITER is rapidly delivering on its commitment.
ITER is aiming at 2025 to produce a plasma heated to levels that support fusion. They do not expect to produce energy from fusion until 2035. But, even then, the energy production is only in an experimental environment. Their work is to support and explore development of the technologies to make the best fusion reactors possible, not to design and deliver the actual reactors.
2. General Fusion
General Fusion is a venture based in British Columbia, near Vancouver. It is in many ways the opposite of ITER. It is small (100 versus 1000 at ITER) and it is focused on delivering a demonstration power plant in short order. They are developing a prototype to be operational in 2022. It is one of the companies that is implementing discoveries from ITER.
General Fusion is supported by private funds including the recent addition of Bezos Expeditions and Shopify/Thistledown Capital, and has collaborators such as Microsoft and McGill University.
The company is developing a process that came from the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory in the 1970s called magnetized target fusion (MTF).
The system consists of a molten mix of lead and lithium inside a spherical metal shell about three meters in diameter. This metal is put into a spin that causes it to open a cavity in the center. Injectors on the top and bottom on the sphere at its vertical axis shoot a tiny ring of moderately warm deuterium-tritium plasma into the cavity. Then, pistons connected to the inside of the sphere and surrounding its entirety are activated. This produces a uniform pressure wave in the molten metal which compacts the plasma to the point of fusion. The reaction produces substantial heat and neutrons.
The molten metal is pumped through heat exchangers and runs one or more turbines to produce electric power.
This is how General Fusion’s chief science officer and founder, Michel Laberge described the system in 2017.
When I picture this system cycling continuously to produce power for our electric grid, it gives me concerns about its reliability. But we have made billions of automotive engines with pistons cycling for years in each engine, and they have done a good job of transporting vehicles very reliably. Diagram of the General Fusion Power Plant
3. Commonwealth Fusion Systems
Located in Devens, MA, northwest of Boston, Commonwealth Fusion is also targeting delivery of real energy producing systems in the near future. They say that the company “will make money by designing and building nuclear fusion power plants for customers, which could begin to produce revenue this decade”.
Commonwealth uses a distinctly different technology from General Fusion, but also moving rapidly toward a working prototype.
The list of investors is impressive: Temasek with participation from new investors Equinor and Devonshire Investors, the private equity group affiliated with FMR LLC, the parent company of Fidelity Investments, as well as current investors Breakthrough Energy Ventures, The Engine, ENI Next LLC, Future Ventures, Hostplus, Khosla Ventures, Moore Strategic Ventures, Safar Partners LLC, Schooner Capital, Starlight Ventures, and others. Also: U.S. Department of Energy, Advanced Research Projects Agency — Energy (ARPA-E), Breakthrough Energy Ventures (Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Ray Dalio, Richard Branson, Jack Ma, Michael Bloomberg, Richard Branson and others).
Commonwealth Fusion’s technology is based on a Tokamak as is ITER, and its most noticeable feature is the High Temperature Superconductors (HTS) used to contain and compress the plasma. The company is collaborating with MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center to build a system called SPARC which will be the first in the world to produce more energy than it consumes. The SPARC demonstration with plasma is beginning this year, 2021. The company aims to start commercialization in 2025.
4. Tri Alpha Energy (TAE)
TAE, Inc., is located in Foothill Ranch, CA, near Los Angeles. It is broad-based versus the tight focus of the other four. The company is organized around five technologies: Fusion Power, Power Management, Mobility, Beam, and Life Sciences. It is fast paced and has its own unique technology.
Essentially, it uses two neutrally charged colliding plasma beams. Where these meet, they form a self-sustaining plasma that is stabilized by a magnetic field that is created by the plasma itself. It is in this region that temperatures rise and fusion occurs. This system promises exceptionally long life due to its simplicity. The technique is referred to as Field Reversal Configuration (FRC). Although the company is using deuterium-tritium as a fuel, their aim is to use hydrogen-boron.
Outside of fusion power, they are providing their beam injectors to other fusion research companies and government labs and to medical researchers and product developers. Also, while building their systems, TAE found that they required an electric power input that was many times what the local grid could provide. So they developed their own power storage system that could provide the intense bursts of electricity needed to drive their plasma generator. This technology is now available through their Power Management business.
The company was founded in 1998 by Drs. Norman Rostoker and Hendrik Monkhorst. It has a management and board that is nothing short of impressive. The active board members include: Jeffrey Immelt, former CEO, GE; John Mack, former CEO, Morgan Stanley; Richard Meserve, President Emeritus, Carnegie Institution for Science and Former Chairman of U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission; Ernest Moniz, former U.S. Secretary of Energy; and others.
TAE has large private investment from: Vulcan, Venrock, NEA, Wellcome Trust, Google and the Kuwait Investment Authority, as well as the family offices of Addison Fischer, Art Samberg, and Charles Schwab.
TAE’s major objective is similar to Commonwealth’s. As CEO, Michl Bindenbauer, recently stated, “Our game plan, the one we have been executing to, is to bring a demonstration power plant online by the late part of the ’20s, so then you go into commercialization,”
5. Joint European Torus (JET)
One of the longest-lived projects is located in Oxfordshire, UK, northwest of London. This was a government supported project that began operation in 1983. It is based on a torus shaped vacuum chamber with a D shaped cross section to create and condense the plasma. It uses copper wire wound magnets with water cooling.
JET produced the first ever regular operation with a deuterium-tritium (D-T) plasma in 1991 and approached breakeven between energy input to fusion energy output of 67% in 1997.
The system is testing approaches to be used by ITER. It will run a series of D-T fusion experiments beginning this month, June 2021, for that purpose. It will be providing scientific support for ITER throughout. The objective is ITER achieving operation that produces more power from fusion than conventional power consumed by the system. This will open the door to commercial fusion power plants.
Work on fusion is happening everywhere and I have included only a sample. These are some of the most notable, but there are others that were beyond the scope of this article. You will be seeing more articles from me soon.
These are more than the usual dry references. Progress is now and it is amazing. I think you will find these interesting.