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Commercial fusion ventures bring in billions of dollars

Commonwealth Fusion Systems has topped off a banner year for investment in commercial fusion projects with a $1.8 billion funding round for a concept that takes advantage of super-powerful superconducting magnets.

When you add in funding for other ventures, total private investment in fusion over the past year amounts to more than $2.7 billion.

Among the investors: Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, who’s backing Massachusetts-based Commonwealth Fusion Systems, or CFS; Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who’s supporting Vancouver, B.C.-based General Fusion; PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, who’s investing in Everett, Wash.-based Helion Energy; and Google, which is getting behind California-based TAE Technologies.

CFS said its Series B funding round, led by Tiger Global Management, will provide enough capital to get its SPARC fusion machine up and running in Devens, Mass., in cooperation with MIT. In addition to Gates, the list of investors includes Google, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff’s TIME Ventures, Breakthrough Energy Ventures, Soros Fund Management LLC and actor Robert Downey Jr.’s Footprint Coalition.

“The world is ready to make big investments in commercial fusion as a key part of the global energy transition. This diverse group of investors includes a spectrum of capital from energy and technology companies to venture capitalists, hedge funds, and university endowments that believe in fusion as a large-scale solution to decarbonize the planet,” CFS CEO Bob Mumgaard said in today’s news release.

Fusion power relies on the same physics that powers the sun — the fusion of atoms under conditions hot enough and dense enough to convert some of the mass in the atoms’ nuclei directly into energy, in accordance with Albert Einstein’s E=mc2 equation.

If nuclear fusion could be harnessed commercially, it could open up new frontiers for always-on power that would be cleaner, cheaper and more abundant than the power produced by nuclear fission.

CFS’ concept for compact fusion power plants relies on the development of high-temperature superconducting magnets to contain and channel super-heated plasma. In September, CFS and its partners at MIT announced that they ramped up a test magnet to a field strength of 20 tesla, producing the most powerful magnetic field of its kind ever created on Earth.

The research team said that level of strength should be enough for the SPARC demonstration reactor, which is targeted for completion in 2025. Successful operations at SPARC are meant to clear the way for commercial fusion power plants in the early 2030s.

CFS’ eye-popping Series B funding round came to light just a day after General Fusion announced its own $130 million Series E round. The anchor investors include Temasek, GIC, the Jameel Investment Management Co. (a.k.a. JIMCO) and the Business Development Bank of Canada. Temasek and JIMCO are also investors in CFS. Bezos, a longstanding supporter of General Fusion, was among a host of other investors joining in for the new round.

“Collectively, the expansion of General Fusion’s investor base in this Series E. financing provides a strong foundation for a larger financing next year,” said Greg Twinney, the company’s CEO.

General Fusion makes use of a technological approach called magnetized target fusion, which involves using synchronized pistons to compress magnetized fuel into a mass hot enough and dense enough to spark a fusion reaction.

The venture is working with the UK Atomic Energy Authority to build a fusion demonstration plant near London by the mid-2020s.

Last month, Helion Energy announced $500 million in fresh funding for its magneto-inertial fusion approach, with the promise of another $1.7 billion in investment if the venture hits key milestones on the way to producing a net electricity gain by 2024.

And in April, TAE Technologies reported a $280 million funding round with support from the likes of Google and New Enterprise Associates. TAE is targeting a hydrogen-boron fuel cycle that’s considered more environmentally friendly than the mainstream technological approach.

TAE (which recently scored a cameo in Apple TV’s sci-fi drama “Finch,” starring Tom Hanks) says it expects hydrogen-boron fusion power plants to start going commercial by the late 2020s.

Although the past year’s private funding figures sound impressive, they’re dwarfed by the public investment in ITER, a fusion project supported by the United States and other nations. ITER’s experimental reactor is under construction in France, with the generation of first plasma set for 2025 and full operations scheduled in 2035. The cost of the project is estimated at $22 billion, but U.S. officials have said the actual cost could run as high as $65 billion.

One billionaire who’s not investing in fusion is Elon Musk. Last month, he told a meeting sponsored by the National Academies that he preferred solar power to terrestrial fusion power.

“I don’t think any really major breakthroughs are needed to make fusion work, but I think it’s unnecessary to make fusion work, because you’ve got a giant fusion reactor in the sky that just shows up every day and doesn’t require any maintenance,” he said.

Musk repeated that critique today in a pair of tweets:

By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributing editor at GeekWire, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. Check out "About Alan Boyle" for more fun facts.

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