(Bloomberg) - U.S. President-elect Donald Trump has angered clean-energy proponents by making false statements about climate change and promising to expand fossil-fuel exploration—a policy that could further exacerbate the existential threat he’s claimed is a Chinese hoax. Wouldn’t it be ironic then if there was someone deep in Trump’s confidence who’s made a bet on cleaning up energy technology once and for all?
Nuclear fusion, which would harness the power of the sun without all the nasty byproducts, is a long-shot—politically, financially, and technologically. Despite relative ambivalence toward fusion by the Obama administration, research has continued apace internationally, and in the American public and private sector. At the head of this pack are venture capitalists like Peter Thiel, the Silicon Valley billionaire who spoke at the 2016 Republican National Convention and is said to be working on the Trump transition team. He has funded a fusion start-up called Helion Energy through his Mithril Capital Management to pursue the ultimate dream of environmentalists the world over.
Germany's Wendelstein nuclear fusion reactor.
Thiel is on the record as a proponent of the existing form of commercial nuclear energy, fission. He penned an op-ed in the New York Times last year lamenting what he described as a functional, safe, and clean energy technology that became “frozen in time,” particularly after the Three-Mile Island nuclear accident of the late 1970s. More than 100 nuclear plants have been canceled over the years. “If we had kept building, our power grid could have been carbon-free years ago,” he wrote.
Fusion, meanwhile, has always drawn energy futurists. It’s the perfect topic for them, since it’s been “30 years away” for at least four decades. While fission produces energy by splitting atoms of uranium or plutonium, fusion would eliminate planet-warming carbon dioxide emissions if scientists could only harness its power in a controlled fashion. Such technology wouldn’t produce long-lasting radioactive waste, and unlike a sun that sets or wind that dies down, fusion wouldn’t need battery back-up. It would work all the time.
The world invests almost $2 trillion in energy every year, but just hundreds of millions of dollars on fusion research and development, according to Tom Jarboe, an adjunct physics professor at the University of Washington who studies controlled fusion. He called global investment in the topic “a pittance,” singling out President Barack Obama’s favoritism of wind and solar over fusion when it comes to clean energy.
But that tantalizing promise of a solution to all our polluting problems has kept investors investing and researchers researching, despite fusion’s one debilitating disadvantage: We haven’t been able to make it work.
The reason everyone presses on is the enormous upside of limitless, clean, safe energy. Studies over the last generation have found that fusion energy offers a favorable “energy payback ratio,” which is a measure of the lifetime output of a theoretical plant, compared with the energy required to build and operate it. A 1998 study by researchers at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, (which has been cited commonly since then) concluded that the energy payback ratio of fusion beats that of fission, coal, and wind power. (A 2006 study found wind to have a higher ratio, and in 2012, the International Energy Agency found hydropower to top the list.)
Nevertheless, the U.S. and its partners have studied nuclear fusion for decades, although without anything approaching commercial success. It’s difficult to calculate a cumulative figure for global research-and-development spending on fusion, but an order-of-magnitude guess is solidly in the tens of billions of dollars. A consortium of 35 countries are collaborating on a massive fusion project in southern France, called ITER. The current cost of the initiative is estimated at $20 billion.
Fusion is also increasingly drawing in venture capitalists like Thiel, who think start-ups can achieve better results, faster, than national efforts have yielded. (A spokesman for Thiel declined to comment.)
His Mithril Capital Management and seed funder Y Combinator invested $1.5 million in 2014 in Helion Enegy, a start-up in Redmond, Wash., that is trying to commercialize its research. Helion has also drawn almost $4 million from a U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy grant.
Helion hopes to make a fusion generator that’s 1,000 times smaller, 500 times cheaper, and 10 times faster than more conventional, massive projects, according to its website. The company is building a “magneto-inertial fusion” generator. It produces power by injecting heated hydrogen and helium at high speed (a million miles an hour) into a “burn chamber,” where a strong magnetic field compresses the plasma to a temperature high enough to initiate fusion. Energy from the reaction is used to generate electricity.
It sounds loony to take the most ambitious, expensive, and inconclusive energy experiment in history and shrink it down to a product that can fit on a truck. If so, then loony loves company. Lockheed Martin Corp. in October 2014 announced that its “compact fusion” initiative would need only a decade to deliver a reactor small enough to fit on the back of that proverbial truck. Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos is included among the backers of General Fusion, a British Columbia company that launched in 2002, and has designed a reactor that compresses hydrogen plasma into fusion reactions with hammer-like jolts. Tri Alpha Energy reported in mid-2015 a breakthrough in the stability of its hydrogen plasma. Its backers have included Microsoft Corp. co-founder Paul Allen.
Jarboe, the University of Washington professor, said he hasn’t heard Trump address Energy Department issues yet.
“There are several new ideas out there that are not being tried with the resources we should, if we want to solve the global warming and energy problem,” Jarboe said. Others have criticized the fusion start-ups for their reliance on ideas originated decades ago.
But ruling out an old idea just because it’s never worked commercially is a dangerous game to get into these days. Solar and wind power, long considered “alternative energy,” are now competitive with traditional power generation in many parts of the world. The same never-going-to-happen criticism applied to hydraulic fracturing, the technique that made the U.S. a natural gas superpower within the last decade. Patented in 1949, “fracking” never worked—until it did, and changed the world, albeit with environmental headaches and manmade earthquakes. Fusion may have more positive byproducts—if we make it work in time to avoid the climate calamities to come.