Secret Plans to Harness Fusion

April 22nd, 2016
Secret plans are under-way to harness fusion, with tech billionaires and private energy companies looking for a cheaper and cleaner way to power the world. While the holy grail of energy production has long been the domain of government projects, private investment is helping the industry enter exciting new territory. Even though general fusion is seen as a long-shot by many, even the slimmest chance of developing working fusion is too good to ignore for many cashed-up investors.

Fusion is the process of smashing atomic nuclei together in an attempt to combine them. Unlike current destructive versions of nuclear power, fusion is entirely constructive, requires no fossil fuels, and produces no harmful by-products. While this all seems too-good-to-be-true, for many, it's a dream well worth chasing. Fusion is the same process that fuels the sun, with a working model capable of changing the way energy is produced and consumed across the world.

The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) is an international fusion project currently facing real challenges. ITER is a joint project being run by the United States, China, India, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and the European Union - with the challenges involved with bringing these parties together leading to numerous delays and cost overruns. While plans are still under-way for the ITER machine to be switched on by 2025 and achieve fusion by 2035, this is 12 years later than the original forecast. If successful, ITER will produce ten times more energy than it needs to run.

While ITER is still the largest fusion project in the world, smaller companies are increasingly engaging with new and innovative approaches. Private-sector fusion companies such as General Fusion and Tri Alpha Energy can operate without the political challenges faced by ITER, something that makes for a much more attractive environment for investors. General Fusion are a forerunner in the fusion game, and perhaps the best-known alternative to the many government-sponsored projects across the world.

Jeff Bezos, Amazon chief executive, is the company's best-known investor, with General Fusion also attracting $12.75 million from the Canadian government and more than $81 million from venture-capital firm Chrysalix, Canadian oil giant Cenovus, and the Malaysian government. According to Michel Laberge, the founder and chief scientist at General Fusion, “We are getting closer to working machines... For many years, fusion research was the realm of big government labs that did great work and established the basis for fusion to work. But there was not a great sense of urgency.”

Tri Alpha Energy are also making big waves, with Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel choosing to back the firm along with big-name investors Goldman Sachs and Vulcan. Based in Foothill Ranch, California, Tri Alpha has already succeeded in keeping a high-energy plasma stable for five milliseconds. While this might not seem like much, according to chief technology officer Michl Binderbauer, it amounts to “half an eternity” on the scale of fusion reactions.

Private-sector companies are making the dream of clean fusion energy seem closer than ever before, with high-stake investors seeking to change the world and hopefully capitalise as a result. According to Michael Delage, General Fusion’s vice president of technology and corporate strategy, investors like Bezos are investing "in technologies that might not fit with the traditional venture-capital model, but [they] still think should be supported because they could have a big impact.”

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