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Cosmic Tech

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.

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Cosmic Tech

Fusion research gets a $500M boost at Helion

Helion is revving up its quest to commercialize nuclear fusion power with a $500 million funding round led by tech investor Sam Altman.

Altman, who’s the CEO of OpenAI and the former president of the Y Combinator startup accelerator, will help raise another $1.7 billion if Helion reaches key milestones on the way to producing a net electricity gain by 2024.

Fusion power takes advantage of the nuclear chain reaction that takes place in the sun, unleashing massive amounts of energy in accordance with Albert Einstein’s famous equation E=mc2. The process is more energetic and potentially less polluting than the more familiar type of nuclear power, produced in fission reactors.

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Cosmic Tech

Carbon XPRIZE winners capitalize on concrete

More than five years after it began, the $20 million NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE competition is complete — and for both of the top competitors, converting CO2 into concrete turned out to be the winning strategy.

The carbon conversion contest was launched in 2015 to encourage the development of technologies that turn CO2 into useful products, with the effect of reducing carbon emissions and fighting climate change.

“Flipping CO2 emissions into valuable products is now a proven, successful strategy to build a better world,” XPRIZE CEO Anousheh Ansari said today in a news release announcing the winners.

Concrete is an attractive target for decarbonization because the current production process is said to account for 7% of global CO2 emissions.

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Cosmic Tech

Elon Musk puts up $100M reward for capturing carbon

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk is putting $100 million into a different kind of “X”: An XPRIZE competition to develop new technologies for sucking carbon dioxide out of Earth’s atmosphere and oceans.

Musk and his foundation will provide the prize money for XPRIZE Carbon Removal, an incentive-based competition that’ll be open to teams around the world.

Teams will be required to create pilot systems capable of removing 1 ton of carbon dioxide per day, and show that their systems can be scaled up economically to the gigaton level.

Reducing CO2 is considered a key requirement for heading off the worst effects of the greenhouse effect and climate change. Total annual emissions of energy-related carbon dioxide currently amount to about 33 gigatons. The long-term goal for the XPRIZE teams should be to contribute to removing 10 gigatons of CO2 per year by 2050.

In today’s news release, Musk said XPRIZE Carbon Removal “is not a theoretical competition.”

“We want to make a truly meaningful impact,” he said. “Carbon negativity, not neutrality. The ultimate goal is scalable carbon extraction that is measured based on the ‘fully considered cost per ton,’ which incudes the environmental impact.”

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Cosmic Tech

Virgin Hyperloop updates its vision for pod odysseys

Virgin Hyperloop’s latest concept for pod trips through a tube suggests that riders will never get a window seat — and that passersby along the route will never see the pods whizzing by.

The venture’s vision for hyperloop travel is laid out, from start to finish, in a video animation released this week.

Virgin Hyperloop’s head of passenger experience, Sara Luchian, told Architectural Digest that the design of the pods is meant to strike a balance between convenience and coolness.

“There’s no question that some people will ride for the novelty, but we have to assume that people will ride more than once,” she said. “And in that case, you don’t want bells and whistles every day.”

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Cosmic Tech

Virgin Hyperloop takes on its first passengers

It’s been seven years since SpaceX founder Elon Musk unveiled his concept for a hyperloop, a network of tubes through which passengers could travel between cities at near-supersonic speeds.

Now Virgin Hyperloop has finally given two passengers a ride.

The 1,640-foot (500-meter) test run in the Nevada desert lasted only about 15 seconds, reaching a top speed of merely 107 mph (172 kilometers per hour). Nevertheless, it was a cause for celebration on the part of the first-ever hyperloop passengers — Josh Giegel, Virgin Hyperloop’s co-founder and chief techology officer; and Sara Luchian, the venture’s director of passenger experience.

“When we started in a garage over six years ago, the goal was simple — to transform the way people move,” Giegel said in a news release issued after the Nov. 8 trip down the DevLoop test track. “Today, we took one giant leap toward that ultimate dream, not only for me, but for all of us who are looking towards a moonshot right here on Earth.”

Luchian said it was only natural that Virgin Hyperloop executives would take what was billed as humanity’s first hyperloop trip after conducting 400 test runs without people on board. “What better way to design the future than to actually experience it firsthand?” she asked.

British billionaire Richard Branson, who made the venture previously known as Hyperloop One part of his Virgin Group corporate family three years ago, hailed the debut of the two-seat XP-2 prototype pod.

“With today’s successful test, we have shown that this spirit of innovation will in fact change the way people everywhere live, work, and travel in the years to come,” he said after the run.

The cushy XP-2 vehicle is a scaled-down version of the production vehicle, which is being designed to seat up to 28 passengers.

Pegasus XP-2 made use of electric propulsion and magnetic levitation to zoom smoothly down the DevLoop’s low-pressure test tube. Giegel told The New York Times that the ride didn’t feel “that much different than accelerating in a sports car.”

Back in 2013, Musk laid out a plan for a network of hyperloop tubes that could cut the travel time between San Francisco and Los Angeles to 35 minutes. At first, he left it to others to commercialize the idea. But in 2016, he founded a venture known as the Boring Company to build somewhat less ambitious underground transit networks.

Since then, the Boring Company has pursued plans to build such networks in Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Chicago and the Baltimore-Washington, D.C. corridor. SpaceX has also sponsored a series of collegiate-level hyperloop pod races.

Several other ventures are trying to commercialize the hyperloop concept, for cargo as well as passenger applications, but Virgin Hyperloop has the highest profile. The company has raised more than $400 million in investment, and last month it announced that it would set up a Hyperloop Certification Center in West Virginia.

Virgin Hyperloop has proposed a variety of projects for locales ranging from Texas, North Carolina and the Upper Midwest in the U.S. to India and the Middle East. The company has said the first networks could win approval in the 2022-2023 time frame. But that timetable has run up against regulatory realities, and some critics question whether the technology will ever be economically viable.

In July, the U.S. Department of Transportation released a roadmap for moving ahead with hyperloop networks, tunneling technologies and other novel transit concepts. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao said the roadmap will “help address legitimate public concerns about safety, security and privacy without hampering innovation.”

There could be big changes ahead in transportation policy: Right now, it looks as if President-elect Joe Biden’s plan for a “second great rail revolution” will focus on conventional high-speed rail. But if hyperloop ventures can grab a bigger share of the spotlight, as Virgin Hyperloop did this weekend, they just might grab a bigger piece of the pie as well.

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Cosmic Tech

Boom does a virtual rollout for its supersonic plane

A year ago, you might have expected the rollout of Boom Supersonic’s XB-1 prototype jet to be a hands-on affair, attended by throngs of employees and enthusiasts.

Then COVID-19 hit.

As a result, today’s big reveal played out mostly as a hands-off affair, with the XB-1 rolling out under a sullen sky while the music swelled at the climax of a 45-minute video. It wasn’t computer-generated graphics, but the rollout had that feel to it.

Despite the social distancing, today’s event proved that Boom Supersonic’s vision is more than CGI — thanks to the efforts of nearly 150 employees at the company’s facilities in Centennial, Colo., and more than $140 million in funding from venture capital firms and high-profile investors such as LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman.

The coronavirus pandemic may have put a crimp in Boom’s development timeline, but the current plan calls for the single-seat XB-1 to start flight testing at California’s Mojave Air and Space Port next year, with veteran test pilots Bill “Doc” Shoemaker and Chris “Duff” Guarente taking turns at the controls.

If that plan holds, XB-1 will be the first commercial-purpose supersonic jet to take to the skies since the last Concorde flew in 2003.

The XB-1’s fuselage is longer than that of a Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet (71 vs. 60 feet) but its delta wings aren’t nearly as wide (21 vs. 44 feet). Carbon-composite construction and 3-D printing cut down on weight and complexity. Shoemaker said the plane has cameras mounted on its nose gear that’ll give pilots the visibility they need without having to employ a Concorde-style swiveling nose.

It’s powered by three tried-and-true GE J85-15 engines, but to cut down its carbon footprint, it’ll use fuel produced from captured CO2. “We’re going to get to zero from day one,” Boom CEO Blake Scholl promised during today’s festivities.

The XB-1 is a one-of-a-kind prototype, designed to fly at Mach 1.3 but not designed for commercial service. Instead, it’ll serve as a testbed for Boom’s bigger Overture airplane: Currently still on the drawing boards, the nearly 200-foot-long Overture is meant to fly 65 to 88 passengers at speeds of up to Mach 2.2.

Scholl said going supersonic would cut Seattle-to-Tokyo air travel time from 10 hours to four and a half hours. That’s why Japan Air Lines has already signed up to buy some of the Overture jets when they’re ready.

The current timetable calls for Boom to start building Overture in 2022, with rollout scheduled for 2025 and the start of service set for 2027. Boom’s past development schedules have slipped, however, and Overture’s timeline is likely to face delays as well.

Boom is one of several companies receiving funding from the U.S. Air Force to study options for the development of a supersonic Air Force One for presidential and VIP use. Georgia-based Hermeus has received $1.5 million for supersonic studies, and California-based Exosonic has a $1 million contract. Boom’s contract seems likely to be in the same ballpark.

Lockheed Martin, meanwhile, has a $247.5 million contract from NASA to build a supersonic aircraft that would demonstrate low-boom technologies. Test flights could begin as early as next year.

Boeing has its own vision for commercial supersonic flight, and has invested in Aerion Supersonic to make it so. Spike Aerospace and Virgin Galactic also plan to field supersonic planes.

Will Boom be the first to make a splash in the supersonic market? Scholl certainly has big ambitions. “We’re sizing the initial factory to do between five and 10 aircraft a month, and I think it’s very likely that we’ll need to build a second factory and double that up,” he said.

Just this week, Boeing said the prospects for commercial airplane sales look dimmer than they did a year ago, largely due to the pandemic. But Scholl sounds much more bullish — or should we say, boomish.

“When you look at how many people are flying on routes that we can fly with today’s regulations, with a big speedup, we need to build a lot of Overtures,” he said. “In fact, we think we’re going to make more Overtures than Boeing has made 787s.

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Cosmic Tech

IonQ goes big in quantum computing’s numbers game

Bragging rights in quantum computing, like quantum mechanics itself, can get fuzzy. Take today’s claim from IonQ that it’s creating “the world’s most powerful quantum computer.”

To back up that claim, IonQ is turning to a metric known as quantum volume. That’s a multidimensional yardstick that combines stats ranging from the number of quantum bits (a.k.a. qubits) in a computer to the system’s error rate and cross-qubit connectivity.

In today’s news release, IonQ says its next-generation system will feature 32 “perfect” qubits with low gate errors, penciling out to a quantum volume value in excess of 4 million.

Taken at face value, that would take some of the steam out of this week’s announcement by Honeywell that its quantum computing system achieved a quantum volume of 128. Which took some of the steam out of IBM’s announcement in August that it reached a quantum volume of 64. And IBM is the company that came up with the metric.

The numbers game highlights the fact that the competition in quantum computing is just getting started, more than two decades after computer scientists laid out the theoretical foundations for the field.

Under the best of circumstances, quantum computing is hard to wrap your brain around. Rather than dealing with the cold, hard ones and zeroes of classical computing, the quantum paradigm relies on qubits that can represent multiple values at the same time.

The approach is particularly well-suited for solving problems ranging from breaking (or protecting) cryptographic codes, to formulating the molecular structures for new materials and medicines, to optimizing complex systems such as traffic patterns and financial markets.

Players in the quantum computing game include heavy-hitters such as IBM, Google and Honeywell — as well as startups such as Maryland-based IonQ, California-based Rigetti and B.C.-based D-Wave Systems.

Different approaches are being used. IBM, Google and Rigetti are focusing on superconducting logic gates; IonQ uses trapped-ion technology; and D-Wave relies on quantum annealing.

The important thing to keep in mind is that different technologies from different providers (including IonQ, Rigetti and D-Wave) are being offered on the quantum cloud platforms offered by Amazon and Microsoft. IBM and Google, meanwhile, provide their quantum tools as options on their own cloud computing platforms.

Developers who want to make use of quantum data processing aren’t likely to go out and buy a dedicated quantum computer. They’re more likely to choose from the cloud platforms’ offerings — just as a traveler who wants to rent a snazzy car from Hertz or from Avis can go with a Corvette or a Mustang.

That’s where metrics make the difference. If you can show potential customers that your quantum machine has more horsepower, you’re likely to do better in an increasingly competitive market.

Last year, IBM’s 53-qubit computer was touted as the world’s most powerful quantum processor, while Google claimed “quantum supremacy” with its own 54-qubit machine. And the ante is repeatedly being upped: Last month, IBM said it would pass the 1,000-qubit mark in 2023 and aim for a million-qubit computer over the longer term.

In contrast, IonQ emphasizes qubit quality over quantity. “We’re not going to throw a million qubits on the table unless we can do millions of operations,” co-founder and chief scientist Chris Monroe told me last December.

Peter Chapman, the former Amazon exec who now serves as IonQ’s CEO and president, said quantum computing should prove its worth well before the million-qubit mark.

“In a single generation of hardware, we went from 11 to 32 qubits, and more importantly, improved the fidelity required to use all 32 qubits,” Peter Chapman, the former Amazon exec who now serves as IonQ’s CEO and president, said in today’s news release.

“Depending on the application, customers will need somewhere between 80 and 150 very high-fidelity qubits and logic gates to see quantum advantage,” Chapman said. “Our goal is to double or more the number of qubits each year.”

IonQ’s 32-qubit hardware will be rolled out initially as a private beta, and then will be made commercially available via Amazon Braket and Microsoft Azure Quantum.

As we await the next raise in the numbers game, it might be a good idea to set up a trusted authority to take charge of the standards and benchmarking process for quantum computing — similar to how the TOP500 has the final word on which supercomputers lead the pack.

Such an authority could definitively determine who has the world’s most powerful quantum computer. Or would that violate the weird rules of quantum indeterminacy?

Update for 3:35 p.m. PT Oct. 5: We’ve added more precise language and links to describe the distinctions between different types of quantum computing technology.

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Cosmic Tech

Kymeta’s next-gen antennas win FCC’s approval

Redmond, Wash.-based Kymeta Corp., the mobile connectivity venture backed by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, says it has won the Federal Communications Commission’s blanket authorization for the operation of its next-generation u8 antenna terminal.

  • Kymeta says the authorization marks a major milestone for the u8 terminal, which is currently in beta testing with commercial release sct for later this year. The company has also won type approvals for use of the terminal from several leading satellite service operators, including Intelsat, Echostar, Hellasat, KTSat and Telesat.
  • Founded in 2012 as a spin-out from Intellectual Ventures, Kymeta’s flat-panel antennas can be electronically steered with no moving parts, thanks to exotic metamaterials technology. The antennas are the key to Kymeta Connect, a hybrid cellular-satellite data service that will be sold on a turnkey subscription basis starting at $999 for a gigabyte of data per month.
  • Just last month, Kymeta announced the acquisition of Lepton Global Solutions to enhance the company’s satellite service offerings for military and government markets. The privately held company also reported an $85 million funding round led by Gates.

This report was first published on GeekWire.

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Cosmic Tech

Hermeus wins $1.5M from Air Force for hypersonic flight

A hypersonic Air Force One? It could happen.

Atlanta-based Hermeus Corp. is partnering with the U.S. Air Force and the Pentagon unit in charge of presidential aircraft to develop technologies for hypersonic travel — that is, flight at more than five times the speed of sound.

Hermeus has won a $1.5 million award for the effort under the terms of a contract with AFWERX, the Air Force’s innovation program. The award follows Hermeus’ successful test of a Mach 5 engine prototype in February.

Hermeus and the Air Force will conduct a rapid assessment of the company’s hypersonic concept for the Presidential and Executive Airlift Directorate’s fleet, which includes the Air Force One airplanes.

The next planes in the Air Force One fleet will be Boeing 747 jets, which are currently being modified for presidential use. Those planes are due for delivery in 2024. Presumably, hypersonic technology will be considered for the next next Air Force One.

“Leaps in capability are vital as we work to complicate the calculus of our adversaries,” Brig. Gen. Ryan Britton, program executive officier for the airlift directorate, explained in a news release.

“By leveraging commercial investment to drive new technologies into the Air Force, we are able to maximize our payback on Department of Defense investments,” Britton said. “The Presidential and Executive Airlift Directorate is proud to support Hermeus in making this game-changing capability a reality as we look to recapitalize the fleet in the future.”

Hermeus says it brought its Mach 5 concept from design to test in just nine months. The test campaign served to reduce risk for Hermeus’ turbine-based combined cycle engine architecture, and demonstrated the team’s ability to execute projects efficiently.

Engine firing

“Using our pre-cooler technology, we’ve taken an off-the-shelf gas turbine engine and operated it at flight speed conditions faster than the famed SR-71,” said Glenn Case, Hermeus’ chief technical officer. “In addition, we’ve pushed the ramjet mode to Mach 4-5 conditions, demonstrating full-range hypersonic air-breathing propulsion capability.”

Hermeus is one of many ventures focusing on hypersonic flight for civilian and military applications. The other players range from Boeing and Lockheed Martin to Stratolaunch and Reaction Engines.

There are a couple of connections between Hermeus and Blue Origin, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ space venture. Before joining Hermeus, Case worked as a propulsion design and engineer at Blue Origin. And one of Hermeus’ advisers is Rob Meyerson, Blue Origin’s former president.

This report was published on Cosmic Log. Accept no substitutes.