Billionaires Chase Holy Grail of Energy
Not long before he died, 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. co-founder said he wanted to view the early stages of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor in Cadarache firsthand, to witness preparations “for the birth of a star on Earth.”
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Allen wasn’t 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 startups that are rushing to produce the first commercially viable fusion reactor long before the $23 billion ITER program’s mid-century forecast.
Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates and Peter Thiel are just three of the billionaires chasing what the 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.
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’s been an explosion of discoveries that are driving the kind of competition needed for a transformational breakthrough.
Fusion itself isn’t 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 will prove lucrative on their own, according to 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 (270 million Fahrenheit) to a new type of magnet that has applications in health care.
It’s already taken ITER more than three decades just to lay the foundation of a machine designed to prove the viability of its concept. And it doesn’t expect to have a reactor capable of powering a couple million U.S. households until sometime around 2050.
Tim Luce, ITER’s chief scientist and Allen’s host at the sprawling research facility about 50 kilometers north of Marseille, dismissed criticism of the time horizon. What the international effort is trying to accomplish, he said, is simply too ambitious for any one actor in the private sector.