The Nuclear Fusion Arms Race Is Underway
Private investors are already betting tens of millions of dollars on nuclear fusion—here's the inside story of where the money is going.
General Fusion's latest reactor tech.
In the early 70s, Rob Goldston was a graduate student in plasma physics, and experiments to produce fusion energy were just starting to bear fruit.
“We had a huge party because we had made 1/1000th of a joule of fusion energy,” he told me. “It was ridiculous, it was a tiny amount of energy." A 35-watt light bulb, for instance, uses 35 joules every second. Now, 40 years later, the game has changed. A recent experiment at the Joint European Torus fusion reactor in the United Kingdom produced 20 million joules. And the National Ignition Facility in California just reached a milestone by producing more energy in a fusion reaction than was needed to start that reaction.
In other words, scientists today are much closer to creating fusion energy than they were 40 years ago. And while most large public research projects are still decades from producing a reactor that can compete in the marketplace, a number of private companies have jumped headlong into the fusion race. Propelled by advances in engineering and science, changes in public funding, and tens of millions in high-risk high-tech investment dollars, they’re betting they can create a scalable, sellable reactor in less than a decade.
“The question as to whether you can coax one of these very hot gasses into making serious amounts of fusion energy from my point of view is pretty clear,” Goldston said. After over a decade directing Princeton’s plasma physics lab, and a couple more in the middle of fusion science, his opinion carries some weight, and so does his conclusion: “You can do it.”
Fusion energy is produced by forcing two atoms together in a super hot gas called a plasma. It’s a process already familiar to all of us, since it powers the sun. A common approach for making fusion energy is to put two isotopes of Hydrogen—Deuterium with one neutron, and Tritium with two neutrons—under enough pressure and heat to make them merge, becoming an isotope of helium. But as they combine, a neutron spins off and creates heat. Harness enough heat, and you can operate a power plant with a renewable source of nuclear energy that produces little to no radioactive waste.
NIF fusion reactor. Image: Wikimedia
“It’s clean, safe, secure, and sustainable,” said Andrew Holland, senior energy and climate fellow at the American Security Project, a bipartisan Washington DC think tank with connections to former senators like Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, for whom Holland was once a staffer. “It has all the benefits of nuclear without the downsides.” With a bathtub of water and a lithium computer battery, a fusion reactor could create the same amount of energy as 40 tons of lung-blackening coal. It could also take a cut of a domestic energy economy that Holland says is worth a trillion dollars annually.
With atmospheric carbon levels climbing past 400 parts per million in the atmosphere, and Americans exploiting our fossil fuels at record levels, fusion’s ultimate promise would be realized if it could compete with or, better yet, replace the energy sources that contribute to global climate change. These ambitious companies, which are locked in the early stages of a technological arms race, believe it can.
The companies differ in terms of the size of their investments, their approaches to fusion, and their degree of openness. A recent Google 'Solve for X' conference featured three such early stage companies working on fusion, as well as a presentation from aerospace and defense giant Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works. Most are working on a timescale of less than a decade. There’s some popular support for fusion as well: a proposal to increase funding in fusion was a winner this year of MIT’s Climate Co Lab, an attempt to globally crowdsource climate change solutions.
Amongst the most secretive and best-financed is Tri-Alpha energy. They’ve released nothing more than a Powerpoint, but have raised somewhere over $140 million from the likes of Goldman Sachs, Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen, Russian tech investment firm Rusnano, and, weirdly, former LA Law star Harry Hamlin.
“For some reason the rich guys like however Tri-Alpha presented,” says Brian Wang, who follows developments in fusion as director of research at Next Big Future. From what Wang can tell, Tri Alpha’s approach looks like the one put forward by a NASA and Department of Defense funded company called Helion Energy, which involves colliding units of plasma and magnetic fields known as plasmoids, but he says “the paper that’s been released does not indicate technical results that they’re way ahead.”
Amongst the fusion companies willing to explain what they’re doing to the public—and to get their work peer reviewed by actual scientists—is Vancouver Canada’s General Fusion. The company has raised over $33 million from a variety of venture funds, Amazon founder and newspaper lover Jeff Bezos, and the Canadian government, via an organization called Sustainable Development Technology Canada.
If a fusion reactor were a matter of aesthetics, the General Fusion approach would probably take the prize. It takes a sphere filled with circulating liquid metal, injects plasma into its vortex, and then bangs the sphere with a bunch of giant electronically controlled steam hammers simultaneously. The hammers create a spherical acoustic wave that applies incredible pressure inside the sphere, forcing a fusion reaction, and then the production of heat.
“Even if there was only one chance in 3 or 50/50 or one chance in 2, the potential payoff if they succeed is so amazing, that I was willing to risk my money”
“All we’re doing is applying modern industrial technologies to actually take a crack at what has been an existing idea,” says Michael Delage, General Fusion’s vice president. He says the approach has been around since the 1970s—the only major missing components were sophisticated enough electronics to control 200 100kg hammers down to within microseconds. The plan is to create a fleet of small-scale generators that could produce energy for a small town, instead of one giant plant that powers a whole region. Of course, first it has to work.
“If we’re not pushing the risk envelope a little bit you won’t catch the big winners,” says Rick Whittaker, vice president and chief technology officer from Sustainable Technology Development Canada. Whittaker’s agency, which exists to carry promising technology over the “valley of death” from R&D to commercialization, supplied around one third of General Fusion’s investment money. He predicts commercialization right around the corner. “I place this one in the 2020 timeframe.” The cost could be as low as 3, 4, or 5 cents per Kw/Hr, which is competitive with coal.
Lawrenceville Plasma Physics, a small New Jersey-based outfit, is going in a more complicated, but similarly open route. As opposed to approaches that use the hydrogen isotopes deuterium and tritium (DT) as fuel, LPP is attempting to use a hydrogen and boron-based fuel known as pB11 instead. Although the hydrogen and boron fuse at a much greater temperature than DT, they don’t make any radioactive particles in the process, and the energy produced comes directly in the form of electricity as opposed to heat, which is much more efficient.
“We’re a tiny operation,” says Derek Shannon from LPP. “We’re ridiculously small compared to what we’re trying to achieve.” Shannon says there’s just a couple employees LPP’s New Jersey lab, and another employee offsite. LPP has been funded to the tune of a few million dollars, but money is tight.
“We’re only a year away but we have to get the funding for a year up front,” says Shannon, “instead we’re on a treadmill where we’re not as able to invest as efficiently as we would like.”
They have also published a peer-reviewed paper that shows they’ve created temperatures hot enough for pB11 fusion, which could lead to cheaper fusion down the road.
LPP's Focus Fusion project. Image: Flickr
So far, LPP has attracted a number of small-scale individual investors. One of them is Bob Fitzgerald, who works in business intelligence, but has always been fascinated by fusion science. “I made my investment out of a sense of wanting to participate or invest in something that would be exciting to follow.”
Despite scant funds, the potential economics of LPP reactors make them more appealing than other approaches.
“If you have another clean way to produce [energy] at 2 to 10 cents per Kw/Hr, the world does not change,” says Brian Wang. In that range, the fusion energy would be cost competitive with other renewables, as while as fossil fuels. But it would not be cheap enough to prevent investment in new capacity for dirty energy. New coal plants and oil refineries would continue to be built. “Only LPP, if they can get it down to .1 cent per Kw/Hr does the world change.”
If LPP is able to develop a reactor that’s a quarter or a fifth the price of dirty energy, than Fitzgerald thinks anyone in their right mind would switch over “purely as a market-driven proposition.” It’s a potential market of untold billions. “Even if there was only one chance in 3 or 50/50 or one chance in 2, the potential payoff if they succeed is so amazing, that I was willing to risk my money,” he says.
“It’s an investment to potentially bring something about that would really transform the world.”
There’s one joke those involved nuclear fusion always tell (I heard it four times in the course of reporting this article), and it’s not really funny. It’s something to the effect of “Oh yeah, fusion energy is just twenty years away…and it always will be.”
Any yuks attributable to this little mantra must be of the funny-because-it’s- true variety. Because despite over a half century of research, gigantic, multi-billion dollar public fusion projects like those at the National Ignition Facility in California, or the 34-nation International Thermonuclear Research project in France are still some decades away from producing energy in a commercial reactor. To wit: despite the National Ignition Facility’s recent experimental success, a blog post in Science describes how “the experiment in question certainly shows important progress, but it is not the breakthrough everyone is hoping for.”
The current private market for fusion is both a product and sometimes a victim of the two major public approaches.
“It probably took 20 years to get ITER funded and get going,” says Michael Delage from General Fusion, “but as a consequence of this huge investment…a lot of those other ideas from the 60s and 70s have received orders of magnitude less investment if at all.”
ITER's research focuses on a kind of fusion reactor known as a tokamak, which was invented in Russia in the late ‘60s. “It blew everything out of the water in terms of performance at the time,” says Delage, and so naturally it attracted the most government research money. “It became this political beast,” says Wang, which had momentum and funding, “even though they started running into all these trouble re actually delivering on the timeline.” The ITER will be up and running in 2020, but it will be delivering commercial scale energy until years later.
Interior of the Tokamak reactor. Image: Wikimedia
Over a decade ago, there was Department of Energy money for alternative approaches to fusion known as innovative confinement concepts. Rob Goldston, was deeply involved in getting workshops together, in part as a way to build and maintain interest in fusion science. While the workshops were successful, he says “none of them got to the kind of fusion parameters that the early tokamak got to which was a little frustrating.” The money has dried up. “Pressure to fund ITER has gone up frankly,” he says.
“Even when [the DOE] has an innovative confinement concept solicitation it still wants those innovative confinement concepts to be something that supports the tokamak,” says Shannon from LPP. In other words, public research money is geared towards supporting big public projects that are decades off, to the detriment of chancy but promising new approaches.
But the lack of funding for ideas presented in these workshops played a roll in pushing some into the private market. “Some of the ideas these companies are now involved with got discussed and were a part of that process,” says Goldston.
“It’s possible that you could get simpler cheaper ways to fusion than the mainline that we’re doing,” says Goldston, but “I think the odds are not high.” He thinks it’s more likely that continued work on the DT track will slowly reduce the cost and size and complexity of reactors. He envisions the long, patient, not-so-sexy slog of scientific advancement winning the day. “Some of this stuff may come to fruition,” but “the more likely outcome is that some of this stuff comes to fruition but in the longer run.”
In the longer run fusion could still create abundant clean energy, but it won’t do anything to slow the damage we’re doing now—it’s certainly not going to be the quick fix techno-optimists have long hoped it would be. The “longer run” view is not nearly so fun as imagining a handful of scientists in New Jersey on a shoestring budget, creating a device in the next few years that would solve the energy problem for the entire planet. It’s a powerful fantasy, just plausible enough for LPP investor Bob Fitzgerald to indulge.
“It’s an investment to potentially bring something about that would really transform the world.”