“An advantage of the private sector methodology is flexibility. Capital can be quickly reallocated
between materials, staffing and other areas,” Mr.
Cassidy says. “This gives private ventures the agility
to iterate designs and move rapidly from concep-
tion to construction.”
During the last six years, he notes, General
Fusion has built and operated 15 plasma systems
at different scales and has been able to improve
performance in new iterations by drawing on the
lessons learned from each preceding system.
But some researchers scoff at private fusion
projects. “To get funding, small companies have
to promise the moon,” Glen Wurden, who leads a
team at the plasma physics group at Los Alamos
National Laboratory, Los Alamos, New Mexico,
USA, told Fortune magazine. “When you hear a pri-
vate company say it will have a technology in five
years, you roll your eyes.”
There’s reason for optimism though, says David
Kingham, PhD, chief executive of Tokamak Energy,
which has received over € 10 million in financing. The
company plans to assemble and test a compact spher-
ical tokamak, a type of machine used to harness fusion
energy, by the start of 2017. Based in Oxford, England,
Dr. Kingham says that keeping prototypes small and
treating fusion energy development “as a series of
engineering challenges” can expedite the technology.
“We can take advantage of 50 years of scientific
research while using new materials and techniques
to make much faster progress,” Dr. Kingham says.
Reviving the Fusion Dream
The long search for nuclear energy’s promised land
is, once again, heating up. After decades of large
government-backed projects becoming mired in
delays, cost overruns and political uncertainty,
private-sector startups are trying to develop scaled-down fusion power plants. If the projects go as
planned, prototype power plants could be demonstrated within a decade.
“Large experimental facilities take a long time to
Less Is More?
construct and, once built, can be expensive to mod-
ify,” says Brendan Cassidy, project manager at General
Fusion, a private venture developing power plant
technology, Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada. “In
the private sector, the focus must remain on develop-
ing a commercially viable power plant, which typically
favors smaller and more practical designs.”
The potential benefits are massive. If researchers
are successful in harnessing the energy created from
combining hydrogen atoms at high temperatures,
they could develop an emission-free, theoretically
unlimited source of energy. That’s why governments
have long sponsored huge nuclear fusion projects—
despite huge obstacles. Exhibit A: 35 countries are
contributing to ITER in France, a fusion reactor
project that began in 1985 and is projected to have
its first fusion plasma test in 2025. Yet going big
will come at a cost of roughly € 18 billion, with huge
delays and budget overruns to boot. The plasma
test was initially projected to occur this year. In the
meantime, governments including the United States
have threatened to pull funding.
Given the long history of troubled fusion projects, who’s funding the new private-sector initiatives? Tech billionaires. General Fusion has raised
US$100 million from backers including Amazon
founder Jeff Bezos. Helion Energy received funding
from PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, and Tri Alpha
Energy has US$500 million in backing from investors including Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.
These smaller nuclear fusion companies plan to
apply the startup mentality that has disrupted so many
other sectors. Part of their promise rests on the idea
that agility, computer simulations and new technologies can help produce reactors and power plants at a
fraction of the cost required in more major projects.
General Fusion’s control room
—Brendan Cassidy, General
Fusion, Burnaby, British