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.


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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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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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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TAE pushes plasma to new high on fusion frontier

Norman plasma generator
TAE Technologies’ Norman plasma generator is pushing the envelope in fusion research. (TAE Photo)

TAE Technologies, the California-based fusion company backed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, said its latest and greatest plasma generator has exceeded the headline-grabbing performance of its previous machine.

“This announcement is an important milestone on our quest to deliver world-changing, clean fusion energy to help combat climate change and improve the quality of life for people globally,” Michl Binderbauer, the company’s president and chief technology officer, said in a news release. “This achievement further validates the robustness of TAE’s underlying science and unique pathway.”

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TAE fusion venture wins supercomputer time

Norman plasma machine
TAE Technologies conducts fusion research using a plasma generator known as Norman. (TAE Photo)

TAE Technologies, the venture formerly known as Tri Alpha Energy, says it’s been admitted into a U.S. Department of Energy supercomputer program that should accelerate its drive to harness nuclear fusion.

The Office of Science program — known as Innovative and Novel Computational Impact on Theory and Experiment, or INCITE — will give researchers access to 31 million core hours on a Cray XC40 supercomputer, TAE said today in a news release.

TAE said its award was one of only 50 granted for the 2018 round of INCITE proposals. The award will provide access to DOE Leadership Computing Facilities at Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois and Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.

The boost in data-processing resources is coming at a crucial time for the California-based company, which counts Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen as one of its investors.

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Tri Alpha Energy fires up new plasma machine

Tri Alpha Energy's Norman plasma generator
Tri Alpha Energy’s plasma generator has been nicknamed “Norman” in honor of the company’s late co-founder, physicist Norman Rostoker. (Tri Alpha Energy Photo)

Tri Alpha Energy, the fusion energy venture backed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, says it has achieved first plasma in its latest generator.

The $100 million device at Tri Alpha’s lab in Foothill Ranch, Calif., had been known as C-2W, but it’s been renamed “Norman” in honor of company co-founder Norman Rostoker, a fusion physicist who died in 2014 at the age of 89.

“We believe this machine will continue to prove the approach to plasma physics he first envisioned and to which he dedicated his life,” Michl Binderbauer, Tri Alpha’s president and chief technology officer, said today in a news release.

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Science News

Startups bring new attitude to fusion quest

Image: Prototype fusion reactor
General Fusion is working on a prototype fusion reactor. (Credit: General Fusion)

The lab where a company called General Fusion is trying to spark an energy revolution looks like a cross between a hardware store and a mad scientist’s lair. Bins full of electrical gadgets are piled high against the walls. Capacitors recycled from a bygone experiment are stacked up like bottles in wine racks. Ten-foot-high contraptions bristle with tangled wires and shiny plumbing.

Michael Delage, General Fusion’s vice president for strategy and corporate development, makes sure nothing is turned on when he takes a visitor through the lab, which is tucked away in a bland industrial park near Vancouver. He’s worried about the voltage.

“If you get a broken wire or something like that, you get a very loud bang,” Delage explains.

His company and others are looking for a bang of a different sort: a smashing together of superhot hydrogen atoms that produces a net gain in energy. Nuclear fusion. It’s the same mass-to-energy reaction that’s behind the sun’s radiative power and the blast of a hydrogen bomb, but scaled down to a manageable level for power generation.

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