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Nuclear Fusion Could Be A Silver Bullet — And Just Around The Corner

Nuclear Fusion Could Be A Silver Bullet — And Just Around The Corner thumbnail

Private investors are now actively trying to commercialize an advanced form of nuclear energy and one that would leave no environmental footprint while also delivering electricity to the world’s expanding population. At issue is nuclear fusion, which has been an elusive concept for six decades but which one firm hopes to makes real by 2025.

TAE Technologies, which has backing from a founder of Microsoft Corp. and which uses Google’s algorithms to better mold plasma that is at the core of the fusion technology, says that the concept can be mastered. Basically, the goal is to fuse atoms together, which requires intense heat levels. If it could be commercialized, the result would produce10 million times more power than a conventional power plant — without CO2 emissions and without radioactive materials.

“The entire game is to learn how to control the plasma,” Michl Binderbauer, president and chief technology officer for Foothill Ranch, Calif.-based TAE Technologies, in an interview with this writer. “Fusion requires holding this together for long enough at hot enough temperatures. Particles then start to bang at each other. When it is sufficiently hot, the atomic cores collide and fuse together.”

To be clear, fusion is different from fission, which is how today’s nuclear reactors produce energy. Fission splits atoms apart whereas fusion combines them – a process that thus far consumes more energy than it generates. The aim, though, is to heat the hydrogen gas to more than 100 million degrees Celsius so that the atoms will bond instead of bounce off each another.

The time is definitely ripe for a technological leap in nuclear fusion. Electricity consumption could double by 2050, led in large part by the industrialization of the developing world. Wind and solar energies are gaining increasing market share but that growth may not be enough to erode the ill-effects of a warming climate.

What makes TAE’s work so interesting is that it has largely been a private enterprise from the get-go. There are wealthy individuals as well as large institutional investors and sovereign wealth funds financing it. Meantime, Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works fusion program is another privately-held venture. Its project is smaller but the company says that it is able to handle temperatures of hundreds of millions degrees that can be released in a control fashion.

The most well known is ITER, or the International Nuclear Fusion Project: It is a partnership among the Europe Union’s member states, the United States, Russia, China, India and South Korea to get a fusion demonstration project up -and-running in France. At least $20 billion has gone into that research and development – and far more will be required. Additional publicly-financed research is being done by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which is trying to figure out how to keep reactor temperatures low while nuclear reactions occur in hot plasma. 

We can move a lot of quicker,” Binderbauer says of TAE Technologies’ venture. “The others would have a very different solution. From a science perspective, there are huge differences. But the markets will bear this out. There is room for multiple players.”

Even Binderbauer says that trying to tackle the technology has huge financial risks. The central question, though, is whether the process can ever yield enough heat to fuse permanently those atoms that are needed to commercialize such power.

While significant financial and technical challenges remain, the good news is that the research being done is getting leveraged and it is used to advanced other ideas such as utility-scale energy storage, electric vehicles and medical technologies to treat tumors: Magnet technology, for example, is used as magnetic resonance imagery that allows doctor’s see completely inside the human brain.

Advocates of fusion say that the science can be conquered. It’s the political will that is required to edge ahead – one to overcome entrenched energy interests, which may be threatened by new technologies. If that courage can be mustered, more venture capitalists and institutional investors will get involved, which might just create a more a sustainable energy future.

As for TAE Technologies, it said that its technology is within reach by 2025 — not 30 years out. Once it can build its first unit, the technology would then start to gain economies of scale and create a full-fledge production cycle. Millions of parts would be sourced from all over the world.

“There is a high degree of confidence,” Binderbauer says. “Now we can build on that strength. By the end of this year, we should reach enough intelligence and understanding of the risk — a big step forward. What we did is to come up with a prescription to make a unique plasma: small, efficient and economic. This has a real shot — a serious shot to get there the fastest. Is it high risk? Of course.”

When it comes to the panoply of potential long-term energy solutions, nuclear fusion gets short shrift because of the notable challenges it confronts. But the research into the science and technology continues so that a breakthrough would be just around the corner — in time to feed the world’s energy needs and to limit the effects of climate change.


21 Comments on "Nuclear Fusion Could Be A Silver Bullet — And Just Around The Corner"

  1. makati1 on Mon, 12th Feb 2018 6:31 pm 

    What corner? 2099? LMAO

  2. Anonymouse1 on Mon, 12th Feb 2018 6:49 pm 

    Forbes….nuff said……

  3. makati1 on Mon, 12th Feb 2018 6:50 pm 

    Fusion energy sources have been common for decades in science fiction novels, but are not likely to ever be practical in real life.

  4. Outcast_Searcher on Mon, 12th Feb 2018 7:39 pm 

    This is one where I’ll believe it when I see it — and it is practical enough to be stable and commercially viable, BTW.

    Even if they manage to get breakeven energy for a few seconds at some point, that’s a lot different than fusion plants replacing, say, all NG plants.

  5. MrBill44 on Mon, 12th Feb 2018 8:05 pm 

    We’ve read so many articles like this over the years and nothing ever comes to fruition.

  6. GregT on Mon, 12th Feb 2018 8:14 pm 

    “The aim, though, is to heat the hydrogen gas to more than 100 million degrees Celsius so that the atoms will bond instead of bounce off each another.”

    Children, playing with fire. What could possibly go wrong?

  7. Duncan Idaho on Mon, 12th Feb 2018 8:57 pm 

    Fusion is a constant, like the speed of light.
    When observing it in 1950, or 2018, it is always 20 years away.

  8. Cloggie on Mon, 12th Feb 2018 10:03 pm 

    Renewable energy in this century, fusion in the next.

    Acording to physical principles fusion is posible as fusion is THE source of energy in the universe. What remains is an (enormous) engineering challenge. They are close, world-wide: ITER in France (the largest), Wendelstein in Germany, several other projects in North-America, Europe and Asia. They are able to keep the plasma stable for several seconds. The technology is one headline away from a breakthrough.

    It could work. “Guarantee until the door knob”.

  9. dave thompson on Tue, 13th Feb 2018 3:04 am 

    Even if one of these multi-billion dollar things get going, how many more multi-billion machines would have to be built to make any difference in useful energy production?

  10. peakyeast on Tue, 13th Feb 2018 3:04 am 

    So a 1000 scientists that are supposed to be the best and brightest has literally been sitting their entire lives doing something that amounted to nothing… What a waste.

    Goodbye and Good riddance.

  11. Davy on Tue, 13th Feb 2018 4:12 am 

    We should be investing all these wasted fusion resources in renewables. I don’t believe in a 100% renewable world. We can have an extended world that is more resilient and sustainable for a time. Maybe we will have a spiritual awakening and many fewer humans can start a new civilization at a smaller wiser scale once a die down occurs. A die down is likely coming per natural law. So I have hope and fantasy too. LOL.

    We really should put maximum effort into renewables now. Even the stupid overly technical side of it serves to increase economies of scale for the more important lower tech side of it. The AI EV craze is stupid and will never scale but this also promotes EV’s and batteries which are useful. EV’s will likely never scale but they have a place in another of the thousands of ways we can mitigate decline. Batteries are essential for residential and special applications. We should have PV panels everywhere. Wind turbines are wonderful. Someday they will make wonderful Moai heads if anyone is left wandering this destroyed planet.

    If only behavior could change. If people could have as much interest in alternative wise behavior as they do in porn and gaming just imagine what we could do. If people took to gardening and walking/biking instead of travel and leisure just imagine. Well it would be hard to overcome the car culture and save industrial civilization but when this civilization self-destructs, as it surely will, we would have people ready and able to at least attempt an alternative.

  12. Go Speed Racer on Tue, 13th Feb 2018 4:49 am 

    Invest into TAE Technologies.
    Call the toll-free number.
    Operators are standing by.

  13. deadly on Tue, 13th Feb 2018 5:49 am 

    Why not build a much smaller model and see if it works on a smaller scale.

    You have to determine if it works or not.

    Where is Nikola Tesla, he would know.

  14. Anonymouse1 on Tue, 13th Feb 2018 6:01 am 

    I called S2E Technologies, and told them I wanted to invest. They said they could put me on a hideaway plan that was sure to bring me huge profits AND give me a good night’s sleep as well.

  15. Davy on Tue, 13th Feb 2018 6:06 am 

    aren’t you a cute dork. Is that an attempt at funny? lol, more like stupid.

  16. jwarner on Tue, 13th Feb 2018 8:38 am 

    I’ve been waiting a decade to re-grow hair on my head. Still hasn’t happened.

  17. GregT on Tue, 13th Feb 2018 11:53 am 

    “aren’t you a cute dork. Is that an attempt at funny? lol, more like stupid.”

    Why the need for the constant name calling and childish rhetoric Davy?

    Are you incapable of behaving like a grown adult?

  18. Norman Pagett on Tue, 13th Feb 2018 11:55 am 

    should fusion power become viable, it will produce electricity.

    unfortunately the human species requires far more than electricity in order to survive and thrive

    electricity of itself is useless without all the mechanical systems and devices that will be required to put it to work.

    and those devices cannot be produced outside a fossil fuelled environment. Fusion power stations cannot be built without fossil fuels

  19. Go Speed Racer on Tue, 13th Feb 2018 4:20 pm 

    Hi Anonymouse,

    Invest into S2E corporation.

    Every $100,000 that U bring to the table,
    will be spent on infrastructure and
    facilities to make S2E come true.

    We will be investing into talk smoke
    stacks and buying off politicians to
    allow our first facility to start up.

    And our management team is the
    very best, flying in private jets and
    living at lakeside addresses.

    They will spend your investment money
    very wisely.

  20. green_achers on Wed, 14th Feb 2018 2:47 pm 

    Oh, Google algorithms! Why didn’t I think of that?????

  21. dissident on Fri, 16th Feb 2018 6:57 am 

    Pure investor propaganda. Fusion will not be solved by couple of inventors in a garage. I know that it is popular on these boards to lump government bureaucrats, corrupt contractors, and scientists together. But the scientists are actually independent and are at the leading edge of knowledge in this field. So some private outfit is not going to beat them at “efficiency”.

    The most promising development over the last few years has been the finding that fusion reactors need to be made larger. Small prototypes are not going to work. There is a nonlinear scaling of wall losses with size. Larger reactors can sustain higher temperature levels.

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