Photo: Courtesy of Helion Energy
October 6, 2015
Government may have failed to deliver on nuclear fusion, but some of the world’s brightest billionaires are putting their fortunes where their mouths are. Tech titans Peter Thiel, Jeff Bezos, and Paul Allen are investing heavily in the technology.
Fortune recently wrote concerning this world-changing energy source: “For more than half a century governments around the world have been trying to solve the challenge of nuclear fusion. In theory it could provide a cheap, clean, and almost boundless source of energy. Consider this: One tablespoon of liquid hydrogen fuel—a mix of deuterium and tritium—would produce the same energy as 28 tons of coal.”
This seems like something worth pursuing.
Photo: Damien Jemison—LLNL
Unfortunately, smashing two hydrogen atoms together at 100 million degrees centigrade is costly and difficult. Government projects have been plagued by high costs and are nowhere near completion. At best, government projects in France and the United States are decades away from commercialization.
That’s not soon enough for the billionaires.
“These men are betting that fusion done on a small scale will be cheaper, less complex, and ready for market sooner than the big government projects. Some major corporations, such as Lockheed Martin and General Atomics, have the same idea and are working on their own versions of small-scale fusion”, writes Fortune.
There are currently six private-sector fusion projects underway in the United States. PayPal co-founder and Silicon Valley investor Peter Thiel is backing Helion Energy of Redmond, Washington, while Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen is betting on Tri Alpha Energy in Irvine, California. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos is backing Vancouver’s General Fusion. The competition is bound to produce better results.
Photo: Courtesy of General Fusion
Writes Fortune, “Other well-heeled investors are sniffing around a different but related technology: cold fusion, which requires a much lower operating temperature. Skeptics will recall researchers Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann, who claimed in 1989 to have achieved fusion in a simple tabletop machine at room temperature. Their experiment was eventually debunked.
“More recently scientists have been making some progress on a variation of this technology called low-energy nuclear reaction. That has led investors like Tom Darden, CEO of the $2.2 billion Cherokee Investment Partners, to create a North Carolina startup named Industrial Heat, which licensed the technology of Italian scientist Andrea Rossi. Last year Bill Gates visited the cold-fusion facilities of the Italian national technology agency ENEA, but he has not invested, according to his office.”
Photo: Courtesy of Tri-Alpha Energy
“These entrepreneurs argue that improvements in computer technology just might make those older designs doable today. One prominent example of this trend is General Fusion, the company backed by Bezos. (Retired NASA astronaut Mark Kelly is one of the startup’s advisers, and in August the government of Malaysia led a new $22 million round of financing.) It is building on the concept of compressing fuel to heat it until it triggers a fusion reaction,” wrote Fortune.
The use of hammers to accomplish this has been tried before – as far back as the 1970s. However, things have changed. Thanks to advanced algorithms and modern technology, the hammers can hit the side of a reactor at the exact same moment – creating a pressure wave that compresses plasma and causes a fusion reaction.
Photo: Courtesy of Helion Energy
Writes Fortune, “General Fusion CEO Nathan Gilliland, who previously worked at Bain Capital, says his company has achieved the right speed and precision of hammers and has created stable, long-lived plasma. Now it’s working on fine-tuning the shock waves and compression so that the plasma generates more energy than it consumes. How long will that take before commercialization? Says a confident Gilliland: “We think in terms of years, not decades. We’ve demonstrated that our pathway is viable. It’s just a matter of engineering.”
No one knows which, if any, of these companies will be successful. No one thinks nuclear fusion will be easy to unlock. But it’s hard to argue with the success of Thiel, Bezos, and Allen, all serial entrepreneurs, all serious about changing the way the world works. And if one or all of them pull this off, they will render the world unrecognizably better.
Photos, Allen: Frazer Harrison—Getty Images; Tri-Alpha: Courtesy of Tri-Alpha Energy; Thiel: Steve Jennings—Getty Images; Helion: Courtesy of Helion Energy; Bezos: K.Asif—India Today Group/Getty Images; General Fusion: Courtesy of General Fusion
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