The buzz about fusion energy: expert explains industry “invigoration” as technology attracts VC dollars

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Chris Hansen, senior research fellow in the William E. Boeing Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics at the University of Washington. (UW photo)

For decades, the promise of harnessing the power of commercial-scale fusion to create vast amounts of carbon-free energy has remained beyond the reach of scientists. Finally that tantalizing dream seems closer to reality and the money begins to flow.

This week, fusion power startup Helion generated a lot of interest with the announcement of a $ 500 million round – and the Everett, Washington-based company could grab another $ 1.7 billion if it reaches its next milestones. Other fusion energy companies, many also located on the West Coast, have announced double- and triple-digit venture capital investments this year.

“Helion Energy’s $ 500 million E Series marks the biggest clean energy deal ever and could be the start of a new era: abundant, clean energy from commercialized fusion technology,” said Svenja. Telle, PitchBook’s emerging technology analyst.

So what is fusion energy and why excitement?

Fusion occurs 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 powerful magnets to hold the plasma. The energy that is generated can be captured and converted into electricity.

The best known example of the power of fusion is the sun, a huge fusion reactor that produces enormous amounts of energy, of which, thanks to excessive greenhouse gas emissions, we are trapping too much on Earth.

GeekWire this week reached Chris Hansen, a senior research scientist at the University of Washington in William E. Boeing Aeronautics and Astronautics Department, to learn more about the field. His lab is studying different aspects of fusion energy and is collaborating with startups including the Seattle-based UW spin-off. CTFusion and other universities.

The questions and answers have been edited for clarity and length.

GeekWire: Why was it so difficult to leverage fusion for electricity generation?

Hansen: We always talk about fusion as “we want to exploit the sun” and recreating the sun on Earth already sounds pretty difficult, right? But in reality we need to do much more. The sun uses fusion, but the sun’s energy density is comparable to a compost heap. It actually has a very low energy density and only works because it’s huge. It is simply gigantic.

But on Earth, we have to do much better than a compost heap. You are talking about 10 times higher temperatures [about 100 million degrees Celsius] and orders of a million times higher energy density. So create very difficult conditions. We can do it scientifically, many experiments have shown that it is possible, but doing it economically is the hard part.

GW: Damn! It sounds crazy. 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 is this great scientific challenge that requires us to advance nearly every type of technology used by society.

It’s very exciting, pushing the boundaries of what we can do as humanity.

And then, if you think if you are able to be successful, just in the way it would drastically change the whole landscape – obviously energy. [production] on the planet, but being in the aerospace engineering department, it opens up all sorts of other things that we don’t even really consider. Doing space missions and traveling with people further away in the solar system and making it much easier to think about generating large amounts of energy on planets that don’t have the conventional resources that we do.

GW: So why is the industry finally taking off?

Hansen: To some extent, we didn’t have the related technologies necessary to make it work 20 years ago. There are a lot of … new magnetic technologies, new materials, but I think one of the biggest impacts that not only impacted fusion, but also allowed those other technologies to emerge, is computer science.

Our ability to model and move forward on some of these scientific and technological developments thanks to the increase in computing power has really made a difference. It is very difficult to make measurements in a fusion reactor because 100 million degrees are quite hot. As a result, we really rely on computer models and simulations to interpret and understand some of the things we see.

As computing has expanded, the sophistication of those models has improved and we are really getting to the point where we have a good enough understanding that we feel we can take some of these big steps again and are confident about some of the predictions. And that’s what you see manifesting in the reinvigoration of the industry.

Hansen’s lab is working on plasma-related technology that could reduce the cost of smelting. In this video of their work, the hourglass shape is the wall of a plasma-containing device. Inside the ship, the plasma naturally relaxes in the shape of a donut. The spectral image of the plasma is created because the hottest regions emit light at different wavelengths, and the high-speed camera used to capture the image is sensitive to only one of the wavelengths.

GW: If one of the companies is successful, how quickly could the merger deliver power?

Hansen: Once this works, there are still many other things that need to happen. Fusion reactors are extremely safe and we don’t take the risks we traditionally think of with nuclear power, but it’s not wind or solar either, so a regulatory framework needs to be created. There are other materials and things like the whole rest of the power plant has to come together.

But depending on how fast someone gets the fusion part to work, it could be very fast.

I know quite well Zap Energy’s concepts that are very inexpensive and on a relatively small scale. If something like this or something like Helion is on this smaller scale, on the cheaper side, you might see it builds up pretty fast. CT Fusion, who my lab works with, is also pursuing an approach that could really cut down on time. It would be very different from these 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 existence for decades and there have yet to be opponents. What is their case against technology and how do you respond?

Hansen: People who associate it with traditional nuclear power are concerned given the story of how it was handled [see Chernobyl and Fukushima disasters] … But we really need to make it clear that merging is fundamentally different. The reason why [commercialized fusion energy] it has not happened yet, it is 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 that’s inside is now inert. None of these things can lead to negative consequences in current nuclear fission systems.

The other thing is the people who basically think we should funnel all the money into other types of renewable resources. But you have a challenge with intermittent sources [like wind and solar that aren’t always available]. At the moment, they are extremely cheap and they are great, and we should definitely invest in that. But there is a little open question as you try to get close to 100% carbon free, you have to deal with that intermittency. And so this will increase the cost.

I think the merger would suit us very well. Personally I would say it is a good investment, but I can see the other side. There are some battery experts out there and smart grid folks 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 and support your case.

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