For decades, the promise of harnessing the power of fusion on a commercial scale to create vast amounts of carbon-free energy has remained elusive of scientists. Finally, this tantalizing dream seems closer to reality and the money begins to flow.
This week, fusion energy startup Helion garnered a lot of interest with its announcement of a $ 500 million funding round – and the Everett, Wash., Based company could land $ 1.7 billion more if it reaches the next steps. Other fusion energy companies, many of which are also located on the West Coast, have announced venture capital investments this year in the double- and triple-digit millions.
“Helion Energy’s $ 500 million Series E marks the largest clean energy contract ever and could be the start of a new era: abundant, clean energy from commercialized fusion technology,” said said Svenja Telle, PitchBook Emerging Technologies Analyst.
So what is fusion energy, and why the excitement?
Fusion takes place in a plasma – which is a superheated gas and the most energetic of the four states of matter – where two nuclei collide, forming a new atom and releasing energy. The most developed method of fusion uses strong magnets to contain the plasma. The energy produced can be captured and converted into electricity.
The best-known example of the power of fusion is the sun, a huge fusion reactor producing huge amounts of energy that, thanks to excessive greenhouse gas emissions, we now trap too much on Earth.
GeekWire this week sat down with Chris Hansen, a senior researcher at the University of Washington in the William E. Boeing Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, to find out more about the field. His lab studies different aspects of fusion energy and works with startups, including CTFusion, a spin-off from Seattle-based UW and other universities.
Questions and answers have been edited for clarity and length.
GeekWire: Why was it so difficult to harness fusion for power generation?
Hansen: We always talk about fusion as “we want to harness the sun”, and recreating the sun on Earth seems difficult enough, right? But we actually need to do much more than that. The sun uses fusion, but the sun’s energy density is comparable to a compost heap. It’s actually a very low energy density and only works because it’s massive. It’s just gigantic.
But on Earth, we have to do a lot better than a compost heap. Talk about 10 times higher temperatures [about 100 million degrees Celsius] and orders with a million times higher energy density. It is therefore very difficult conditions to create. We can do it scientifically, many experiments have shown that it is possible, but doing it in a cost effective way is the hardest part.
GW: Fuck! It sounds crazy hard. Why bother with the merger?
Hansen: It is a very interesting problem. There are so many different aspects of fusion that have yet to be resolved, and so many things that fit together, it’s this great scientific challenge that forces us to advance almost every type of technology that society uses. .
It’s very exciting, pushing the boundaries of what we can do as a humanity.
And then, if you think about if you’re capable of being successful, just the way that would drastically change the whole landscape – of course the energy. [production] on the planet, but being in the aerospace engineering department opens up all kinds of other things that we don’t even really consider. Go on space missions and travel with people further into the solar system, and make it much easier to think about generating large amounts of energy on planets that don’t have the conventional resources that we have.
GW: So why is the industry finally taking off?
Hansen: To some extent, we just didn’t have the related technologies that were needed to make it work 20 years ago. There’s a lot of … new magnetic technologies, new materials, but I think one of the biggest impacts that not only impacted fusion, but also allowed these other technologies to emerge, is just computers.
Our ability to model and advance some of these scientific and technological developments due to the increase in computing power has really made a difference. It is very difficult to take measurements in a fusion reactor because 100 million degrees is quite hot. Therefore, we really rely on computer models and simulations to interpret and understand some of the things that we see.
As computing has spread, the sophistication of these models has improved and we’re really getting to the point where we have a pretty good understanding that we feel like we can do some of these again. big steps and we are confident about some of the predictions. And that’s what you see manifesting in the revitalization of the industry.
GW: If one of the companies is successful, how quickly could the merger provide electricity?
Hansen: Once the thing works, there is still a lot of other things to do. Fusion reactors are extremely safe and we don’t have the risks we traditionally think of with nuclear power, but it’s not wind power or solar power either, so we’re going to have to create a regulatory structure. There are other materials and things like everything else in the power plant has to come together.
But depending on how quickly someone can get the merge part to work, it could be really quick.
I am quite familiar with the concepts of Zap Energy which are very cheap and on a relatively small scale. If something like that or something like Helion that’s on a smaller scale, on the cheaper side, you could see that ramping up pretty quickly. CTFusion, with which my lab works, is also pursuing an approach that could really shorten that time frame. It would be very different from those large power plants that people would traditionally think of when they think of fusion energy or other systems.
GW: The power of fusion has been in the making for decades, and there have yet to be naysayers. What is their argument against technology, and how do you respond to it?
Hansen: People who associate it with traditional nuclear power are concerned given the history of how it has been handled [see Chernobyl and Fukushima disasters] â¦ But we really have to make it clear that the merger is fundamentally different. The reason why [commercialized fusion energy] has not yet happened is it so difficult to create the conditions that allow it to happen. But that’s part of what makes it so inherently safe, because you can just shut down the system immediately. All the fuel in it is now inert. You don’t have any of those things that can have bad consequences in today’s nuclear fission systems.
The other thing is the people who basically think we should be channeling all the money into other kinds of renewable resources. But you have a challenge with intermittent sources [like wind and solar that arenât always available]. Right now they’re extremely cheap and they’re great, and we should definitely invest in that. But there is a small open question as you try to approach 100% carbon free, you have to deal with this intermittency. And so it will increase the cost.
I think the merger would fit very well into this. Personally, I would say it’s a good investment, but I can see the other side. There are battery and smart grid specialists who would say we can do it another way. But in government funding, at least, there are all the different peer reviews and competitive proposals to try to make your case.