Fueled by billions of dollars, nuclear fusion enters a new era


After raising more than $ 3 billion in 2021 from Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos, fusion developers insist this carbon-free energy source could be a reality within a decade.

It is clear that nuclear fusion can work on a large scale – you just have to look at the stars. For 70 years, physicists have dreamed of bottling this stellar power in the form of fusion reactors that would feed the power grid with the same limitless, carbon-free reactions that make the sun shine. This holy grail has long been heralded as 20 or 30 years from now, but fusion fans have refused to give up the faith. And for good reason. Fusion (breaking down hydrogen atoms together into helium) promises unlimited carbon-free electrical energy with zero risk of fusion and virtually none of the radioactive waste associated with existing nuclear power plants that operate by fission (the division of uranium atoms into smaller elements).

The dream inspired Ajay Royan, co-founder of Mithril Capital (along with billionaire Peter Thiel), who in 2013 first invested $ 2 million in Helion Energy, based in Redmond, Wash., In order to be able to construct a prototype of a “repetitive pulse power” machine. Mithril has invested in Helion ever since, including his recent $ 500 million funding round (valuing the company at $ 3 billion) – with the pledge of $ 1.7 billion more if the company’s seventh prototype works as hoped. The Helion tour was led by Sam Altman of Y Combinator.

2021 has been an important year for both funding and merger forecasting, as developers have raised more than $ 3 billion to fund their next set of machines – some of which now promise a commercially viable merger in just five years. . Royan is happy to see the merger attracting more attention; “Sure, 2021 may be a turning point for merger according to Google Analytics, but the real turning point came a decade ago when power electronics broke a threshold.”

CEO David Kirtley explains that the first R&D work behind Helion was done in federal labs, from which Helion was formed in 2013. Freed from the federal R&D bureaucracy, Helion has since built new prototypes one after the other. others. “The startup mentality is not pleasant to have, it is a requirement. and what we focused on from the start, ”says Kirtley.

In 2020, Helion completed its sixth prototype reactor, dubbed Trenta. She is currently building a seventh, Polaris, while already designing the eighth, Antares, which Kirtley intends to be the first fusion machine to produce more power than it consumes. Along with the rapid iteration, Helion benefits from local expertise. It builds the Polaris machine in Everett, Wash., Near Boeing’s largest factories, where they can tap into a welcoming ecosystem of contract engineers and precision manufacturers. Kirtley says they spend the morning tinkering, updating systems, and turning on capacitors. “Every afternoon at 3 p.m. we start to do fusion.”

To understand Helion’s approach, let’s first consider the magnetic repulsion that occurs when you try to force the positive poles of two magnetic bars together. This is the principle that allows “mag-lev” technology like Japan’s famous high-speed trains, which use magnetic repulsion to float on a cushion of air.

For decades, fusion researchers have sought to design the most powerful electromagnets in the world, with which they design reaction chambers with magnetic fields so strong that they can contain and compress an injected flux of positively charged protons. in a ball of plasma so hot they fuse into helium.

In Helion’s new system, the energy released in fusion reactions constantly pushes against its magnetic confining field, which pushes back – causing oscillations (“like a piston,” Kirtley says) that generate an electric current, which Helion picks up directly from the reactor. (Read more on Faraday’s Law of Induction.)

Royan de Mithril says that perhaps the greatest attraction of Helion’s method of direct electricity generation is its simplicity. Other fusion approaches aim to generate heat, in order to boil water and power steam turbines, which generate electricity, as in traditional nuclear power plants. “We can do it without steam turbines or cooling towers. We are getting rid of the power plant.

Granted, Kirtley understands merger skepticism, especially around its aggressive schedule. He began his career in the field of fusion, inspired by scientists at National Laboratories in the 1960s who made great strides in magnetic containment (by competing with Russian scientists to design donut-shaped reactors called tokamaks ) even before the invention of transistors. But Kirtley lost confidence after determining that early approaches simply couldn’t evolve fast enough to produce a commercial solution. He returned to the field in 2008 to help commercialize Helion’s technology.

Over time, he plans to make fusion generators in a factory. A 50 MW scale system, packaged in three units the size of a shipping container, would power 40,000 homes. “In 10 years, we’ll have commercial electricity to sell, that’s for sure. ”

This puts Helion in a race with Commonwealth Fusion Systems, a Boston-based MIT spinoff company that has raised $ 1.8 billion from investors such as Bill Gates and George Soros. CEO Bob Mumgaard says they will have a working reactor in 6 years. His optimism is bolstered by the Commonwealth’s successful summer test of new electromagnets designed with superconductors made from rare earth copper and barium oxide.

Mumgaard says these overpowered magnets will allow the Commonwealth to hone their somewhat more traditional fusion approach of building a donut-shaped “tokamak” reactor, which Mumgaard calls a “big magnetic bottle” where strong magnetic fields control balls of fire. 100 million degree plasma – “star stuff.”

There are around 150 tokamaks in the world; the biggest is under construction in France for 30 billion dollars by an international consortium called ITER. The 20,000-ton machine, the size of a basketball arena, is expected to be completed by 2035.

But Mumgaard intends for Commonwealth Fusion to obsolete ITER before it’s even finished. Its advantage lies in the application of “high temperature” superconductors made with rare earth copper and barium oxide (aka ReBCO).

Superconductors move electric current with almost zero loss (much more efficiently than copper, for example). And they are essential for making strong electromagnets. Commonwealth has discovered that by making its magnets using a special tape of copper and barium oxide (like the tape found in a VHS tape), it can achieve stronger magnetic fields than expected at ITER. , but at 1 / 20th of the scale.

While ITER’s primary magnets (called solenoids) will weigh around 400 tonnes and achieve fields of over 12 tesla, Commonwealth is considering 15-tonne magnets, each using 300 km of ReBCO thin-film tape, which will generate 20 tesla (at for comparison, a magnetic resonance imaging machine is 1.5 tesla).

“This unlocks the fusion machine,” explains Mumgaard. CES tested the magnets last summer and declared it “proof” that the science of fusion is now practically over and all that remains is to build the reactor. “We understand the material well and believe we can do it in three years,” says Mumgaard. “By 2030, we will see the merger on the grid.”

CES is about to build its fusion machine at a 47-acre site in Massachusetts, and is already working to supply thousands of miles of ReBCO tape. Could the availability of rare earth become a limiting factor in the deployment of fusion? No, said Mumgaard. “A fusion power plant will contain less rare earth than a wind turbine. Fusion is not about a resource that you need to mine or pump. It is a technology.

There should be room for more than one merger winner. Other leaders include General Fusion, based in Canada and backed by Jeff Bezos, which has raised $ 130 million this year. Neal and Linden Blue are other notable billionaires in the fusion game, who own the San Diego-based company General Atomics, which for decades has operated a research tokamak on behalf of the DOE, and which delivered this year to ITER the entrails of its tokamak electromagnets. a central 1000 tonne solenoid. And there’s TAE Energy of California, which has experimented with $ 1 billion over the past decade and raised $ 130 million during the pandemic.

Fusion technology may have made its debut in government-funded labs, but its realization will have to rely on private funding. Amy Roma, a partner at Hogan Lovells in Washington, DC, says the bill currently in limbo Build Back Better would have included $ 875 million for advanced nuclear, but for now the industry will have to settle for a new advanced reactor demonstration office under the Ministry of Energy, funded by the recent infrastructure law. Zero-carbon nuclear would also benefit from President Biden’s recent executive order calling for federal government energy purchases to be “net zero” by 2030.

Legendary tech investor Steve Jurvetson, a Commonwealth Fusion funder who wrote his first check in favor of fusion research 25 years ago, is almost dazed that this long-delayed dream could soon become a reality. “There are a lot of naysayers until it’s done. Then they say it’s obvious.

Royan de Mithril says he’s already working on adjusting his framework to consider how different the world will be when the merger is real – “Think about the opportunities for water desalination and fertilizer production. saving water overnight, and therefore saving agriculture. “It is all part of mankind’s path, he said,” to continue to prove that Malthus was a fool. ”

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