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Nuclear power in space? Pentagon boosts two projects

Two Seattle companies have won Pentagon contracts to develop nuclear-powered prototypes for space applications, with orbital demonstrations set for 2027.

The Defense Innovation Unit says Ultra Safe Nuclear Technologies has been tasked with demonstrating a chargeable, encapsulated nuclear radioisotope battery called EmberCore for propulsion and power applications in space.

Plutonium-powered radioisotope batteries have been in use for decades, going back to the Apollo era. For example, NASA’s Perseverance and Curiosity rovers are relying on such batteries to provide the heat and electricity for their operations on Mars.

EmberCore would provide 10 times as much power as those batteries, producing more than 1 million kilowatt-hours of energy using just a few pounds of fuel.

Another Seattle-based venture, Avalanche Energy, will receive backing from the Defense Innovation Unit to continue development of a compact fusion device known as Orbitron. The device, which is about the size of a lunchbox, would use electrostatic fields to trap ions in conjunction with a magnetron electron confinement system.

The resulting fusion reaction would produce energetic particles for generating either heat or electricity, which can power a high-efficiency propulsion system.

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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 Science

ITER fusion project celebrates start of assembly

The $25 billion international fusion project known as ITER marked the start of its five-year reactor assembly process today with a ceremony tailored for the coronavirus era.

French President Emmanuel Macron was the headliner, appearing on a big screen set up at the construction site in France’s Provence region.

“ITER is clearly an act of confidence in the future,” Macron told a small gathering of dignitaries who were spread out in the ITER Assembly Hall to observe social-distancing guidelines. “Breakthroughs in human history have always proceeded from daring bets, from journeys fraught with difficulty.”

Difficulties in the form of rising costs and delayed schedules have dogged ITER for more than a decade. When I visited the site in 2007, planners anticipated that operations would start up in 2016 — and the project’s cost was listed at $13 billion.

In an interview with Science’s Daniel Clery, ITER Director-General Bernard Bigot estimated that the rate of spending is around €1 million ($1.2 million) per day.  Clery’s report also noted that the first piece of the facility’s doughnut-shaped tokamak reactor, the nearly 100-foot-wide cryostat base, was lowered into the assembly pit in May.

Components for ITER are being provided as in-kind contributions by the project’s seven members: China, the European Union, India, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the United States. Indian contractors built the cryostat, for example, while the U.S. is responsible for the central solenoid magnet (built by General Atomics).

Experiments at ITER are expected eventually to surpass the break-even point for a nuclear fusion reaction — a small-scale version of the reaction that powers the sun. That could blaze a trail for future commercial reactors potentially capable of generating cheap, clean, safe, abundant electricity.

ITER follows the conventional approach to fusion power, known as magnetic confinement fusion. Meanwhile, several commercial ventures — including General Fusion, based near Vancouver, B.C. — are trying to commercialize fusion power on a shorter timetable using less conventional approaches.

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GeekWire

General Fusion gets a $65M boost for power plant

General Fusion plasma injector
General Fusion says it has the world’s largest and most powerful plasma injector, capable of creating a ring of hydrogen plasma 6 feet in diameter and heating it to millions of degrees. This machine is a prototype of the fuel injector for a fusion power plant. (General Fusion Photo)

Burnaby, B.C.-based General Fusion says it has closed on a $65 million equity financing round that will spark the launch of a program to design, construct and operate a demonstration nuclear fusion power plant.

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GeekWire

Canada invests $38M in General Fusion’s research

General Fusion plasma injector
General Fusion says it has the world’s largest and most powerful plasma injector, capable of creating a ring of hydrogen plasma 6 feet in diameter and heating it to millions of degrees. This machine is a prototype of the fuel injector for a fusion power plant. (General Fusion Photo)

The Canadian government says it’s investing $37.5 million (49.3 million Canadian dollars) in General Fusion, a British Columbia company that aims to build a prototype plant powered by nuclear fusion.

Funding from Canada’s Strategic Innovation Fund was announced today by Defense Minister Harjit Singh Sajjan and Navdeep Bains, Canada’s minister of innovation, science and economic development.

In a news release, Burnaby, B.C.-based General Fusion said the government’s backing would support the creation of 400 new jobs and boost the development of a “first-of-its-kind, large-scale prototype plant that will demonstrate a practical approach to commercializing affordable, abundant, safe and emission-free electricity from fusion energy.”

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GeekWire

TAE fusion venture rearranges its leadership

Michl Binderbauer
Michl Binderbauer is moving up from chief technology officer to chief executive officer at California-based TAE Technologies, formerly known as Tri Alpha Energy. (PPPL / TAE Photo)

TAE Technologies, the fusion energy venture backed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and other heavy-hitters, is elevating Michl Binderbauer to CEO and bringing former General Electric CEO Jeff Immelt onto its board of directors.

The California-based company’s former CEO, Steven Specker, will stay on as a board member and adviser. And Mark Lewis, who joined the company as chief business officer last year, has been appointed president.

In an interview, Binderbauer told GeekWire that the executive change-over has been “amicable,” and will set the stage for the next chapter in TAE’s efforts to tame nuclear fusion and capitalize on technological spin-offs along the way.

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GeekWire

Fusion venture branches out into cancer therapy

Cancer therapy
An artist’s conception shows how a beam of neutrons could be directed at a tumor in a patient’s head, shown in a cutaway view. (TAE Life Sciences Illustration)

TAE Technologies, the California-based fusion energy company backed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, has spawned a spinoff focusing on a novel type of cancer therapy.

The spinoff, TAE Life Sciences, is a majority-owned subsidiary of TAE Technologies and will take advantage of the company’s accelerator-based beam technology.

In its quest to tame nuclear fusion, TAE Technologies has developed a high-intensity beam system that shoots energetic particles at clouds of plasma to boost stability and performance.

TAE Life Sciences aims to use similar beams for an application known as boron neutron capture therapy, or BNCT. The technique involves injecting a drug containing non-radioactive boron into a cancer patient’s tumor, and then shooting a neutron beam at the tumor.

The boron atoms absorb the neutrons, resulting in a localized radiation effect that kills the tumor cells while preserving non-cancerous tissue.

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GeekWire

MIT and a startup join the commercial fusion race

SPARC fusion reactor
An artist’s conception shows the proposed SPARC tokamak experiment. Using high-field magnets built with high-temperature superconductors, this experiment could be the first controlled fusion plasma to produce net energy output. (MIT PSFC Illustration / Ken Filar)

A new entrant in the race to commercialize fusion energy, Commonwealth Fusion Systems, aims to capitalize on superconductor technology from MIT and $50 million from the Italian energy company Eni.

The collaboration between the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Commonwealth Fusion, an MIT spinout based in Cambridge, Mass., came to light today after years of work behind the scenes.

“This is an important historical moment: Advances in superconducting magnets have put fusion energy potentially within reach, offering the prospect of a safe, carbon-free energy future,” MIT President L. Rafael Reif said in a news release.

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GeekWire

Fusion ventures learn lessons about expectations

Plasma injector
General Fusion says it has the world’s largest and most powerful plasma injector, capable of creating a ring of hydrogen plasma 6 feet in diameter and heating it to millions of degrees. This machine is a prototype of the fuel injector for a fusion power plant. (General Fusion Photo)

The promise of natural gas, shale oil, renewable energy and conventional nuclear power all pale in comparison to the promise of clean, potentially abundant fusion power — and that’s attracting increasing attention from science-savvy entrepreneurs.

Almost two dozen private ventures are trying to crack the fusion challenge, backed by a combined total of more than a billion dollars of private investment, said Chris Mowry, the CEO of Vancouver, B.C.-based General Fusion. (One Seattle venture, CTFusion, is currently looking for lab space.)

Mowry drew parallels to the enthusiasm sparked by SpaceX in the launch industry.

“I feel like this is the SpaceX moment for fusion,” he said today at a Seattle breakfast session on commercial fusion ventures, organized by the CleanTech Alliance.

But when you ask about the time frame for commercializing fusion power, the answers get squishier. And there’s good reason for that.

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