Sun, Nov 04, 2018 - Page 15 News List

Billionaires chase ‘SpaceX moment’ for the Holy Grail of energy

By Jonathan Tirone  /  Bloomberg

Not long before he died on Oct. 15, tech visionary Paul Allen traveled to the south of France for a personal tour of a 35-country quest to replicate the workings of the sun. The goal is to one day produce clean, almost limitless energy by fusing atoms together rather than splitting them apart.

The Microsoft Corp cofounder said he wanted to view the early stages of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) in Cadarache firsthand, to witness preparations “for the birth of a star on Earth.”

Allen was not just a bystander in the hunt for the holy grail of nuclear power. He was among a growing number of ultra-rich clean-energy advocates pouring money into start-ups that are rushing to produce the first commercially viable fusion reactor long before the US$23 billion ITER program’s mid-century forecast.

Amazon founder and chief executive officer Jeff Bezos, Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates and venture capitalist Peter Thiel are just three of the billionaires chasing what late physicist Stephen Hawking called humankind’s most promising technology.

Scientists have long known that fusion has the potential to revolutionize the energy industry, but development costs have been too high for all but a handful of governments and investors. Recent advances in exotic materials, 3D printing, machine learning and data processing are all changing that.

“It’s the SpaceX moment for fusion,” said Christofer Mowry, chief executive officer of the Bezos-backed General Fusion Inc near Vancouver, Canada. He was referring to Elon Musk’s reusable rocket maker.

“If you care about climate change you have to care about the timescale and not just the ultimate solution. Governments aren’t working with the urgency needed,” Mowry said.

The company Allen supported, TAE Technologies, stood alone when it was incorporated as Tri-Alpha Energy two decades ago. Now it has at least two dozen rivals, many funded by investors with a track record of disruption.

As a result, there has been an explosion of discoveries that are driving the kind of competition needed for a transformational breakthrough, Mowry said.

One of the clearest measures of progress in the field was on display last week in Gandhinagar, India, where the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency held its biennial fusion forum. The conference highlighted a record 800 peer-reviewed research papers, 60 percent more than a decade ago.

Fusion itself is not the problem. The tricky part is generating more energy than is used in the process. Such reactors have to mimic conditions found only in deep space, a much more complex and costly endeavor than fission. Heating plasma to temperatures higher than stars and then containing the ensuing reactions inside cryogenic cooling vessels can require a million parts or more.

Even if commercial fusion takes longer than expected to achieve, many of the innovations produced along the way are likely to prove lucrative on their own, said IP Group PLC, a London-based investor in intellectual property.

Research firms are already minting patents to protect their creations, from software that simulates plasma burning at 150 million degrees Celsius to a new type of magnet that has applications in healthcare.

“There’ll still be significant residual value,” said Robert Trezona, who oversees IP Group’s investment in First Light Fusion Ltd, a company near Oxford University, the advisory board of which includes former US secretary of energy Steven Chu.

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