Commercial fusion ventures learn lessons about engineering and expectations

PI3 plasma injector

General Fusion says it has the world’s largest and most powerful plasma injector, capable of creating a ring of hydrogen plasma 6 feet in diameter and heating it to millions of degrees. This machine is a prototype of the fuel injector for a fusion power plant. (General Fusion Photo)

The promise of natural gas, shale oil, renewable energy and conventional nuclear power all pale in comparison to the promise of clean, potentially abundant fusion power — and that’s attracting increasing attention from science-savvy entrepreneurs.

Almost two dozen private ventures are trying to crack the fusion challenge, backed by a combined total of more than a billion dollars of private investment, said Chris Mowry, the CEO of Vancouver, B.C.-based General Fusion. (One Seattle venture, CTFusion, is currently looking for lab space.)

Mowry drew parallels to the enthusiasm sparked by SpaceX in the launch industry.

“I feel like this is the SpaceX moment for fusion,” he said today at a Seattle breakfast session on commercial fusion ventures, organized by the CleanTech Alliance.

But when you ask about the time frame for commercializing fusion power, the answers get squishier. And there’s good reason for that.

On one hand, there’s the old joke that fusion is the energy solution of the future, and always will be. On the other hand, it’s tempting for business entrepreneurs to predict that their systems will start showing a net energy gain within, say, three years.

Helion Energy CEO David Kirtley, General Fusion CEO Chris Mowry and TAE Technologies CEO Steven Specker discuss commercial fusion ventures at a CleanTech Alliance forum in Seattle. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)Helion Energy

That’s basically what David Kirtley, the CEO of Redmond, Wash.-based Helion Energy, told The Wall Street Journal three and a half years ago. “If our physics hold, we hope to reach that goal in the next three years,” he said at the time.

Today, he said he’s learned to be more careful about giving timelines.

“There’s always another assumed answer, which is that you have a business case you have to make as well,” he told GeekWire. “You’re making assumptions about engineering and physics, but you’re also making funding assumptions.”

Funding is looking up for Helion: The company raised $10.6 million in a Series B round in 2015, and has also benefited from millions of dollars in federal research grants.

Deuterium plasma glows inside the injectors of Helion Energy’s Venti system during early testing. …read more

Source:: GeekWire

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