The buzz about fusion energy: Expert explains industry’s ‘reinvigoration’ as tech attracts VC dollars

Chris Hansen, senior research scientist in the William E. Boeing Aeronautics and Astronautics Department at the University of Washington. (UW Photo)

For decades, the promise of harnessing the power of fusion on a commercial scale to create vast amounts of carbon-free energy has hovered just out of reach for scientists. At last that tantalizing dream appears closer to reality and the cash is starting to flow.

This week, fusion energy startup Helion generated a lot of interest with its announcement of a $500 million round — and the Everett, Wash.-based company could land an additional $1.7 billion if it meets upcoming milestones. Other fusion energy companies, many also located on the West Coast, have announced venture capital investments this year in the double- and triple-digit millions.

“Helion Energy’s $500 million Series E marks the largest deal in clean energy ever and could be the beginning of a new era: abundant, clean energy from commercialized fusion technology,” said Svenja Telle, PitchBook’s emerging technology analyst.

So what is fusion energy, and why the excitement?

Fusion takes place in a plasma — which is a superheated gas and the most energetic of the four states of matter — where two nuclei smash into each other, forming a new atom and releasing energy. The most developed method to make fusion uses powerful magnets to contain the plasma. The energy that is generated can be captured and converted into electricity.

The most well-known example of fusion’s power is the sun, a massive fusion reactor producing enormous amounts of energy, which, thanks to excessive greenhouse gas emissions, we are now trapping too much of on Earth.

GeekWire this week caught up with Chris Hansen, a University of Washington senior research scientist in the William E. Boeing Aeronautics and Astronautics Department, to learn more about the field. His lab is studying different aspects of fusion energy and collaborating with startups including Seattle-based UW spinoff CTFusion and other universities.

Questions and answers have been edited for clarity and length.

GeekWire: Why has it been so difficult to harness fusion for electricity production?

Hansen: We always talk about fusion as “we want to harness the sun,” and recreating the sun on Earth already sounds pretty hard, right? But we actually have to do much more than that. The sun uses fusion, but the energy density of the sun is comparable to a compost heap. It’s actually very low energy density and only works because it’s massive. It’s just gigantic.

But on Earth, we’ve got to do a lot better than a compost heap. You’re talking 10-times higher temperatures [about 100 million degrees Celsius] and orders of a million times higher energy density. So it’s very challenging conditions to create. We can do it scientifically, many experiments have demonstrated that it’s possible, but to do it in a way that is cost effective is the hard part.

GW: Dang! That sounds crazy tough. Why bother with fusion?

Hansen: It’s a very interesting problem. There are so many different aspects of fusion that still have to be solved, and so many things that integrate together it’s this scientific grand challenge that requires us to advance almost every type of technology that society uses.

It’s very exciting, pushing the boundaries of what we can do as humanity.

And then, if you think about if you are able to succeed, just the way that it would dramatically change the whole landscape — of course the energy [production] on the planet, but being in the aerospace engineering department, it opens up all sorts of other things that we don’t even really consider. Doing space missions and travel with people farther out in the solar system, and making it much easier to think about generating large amounts of power on planets that don’t have the conventional resources that we have.

GW: So why is the sector finally taking off?

Hansen: To some extent, we just didn’t have the related technologies that were necessary to make it work 20 years ago. There’s a lot of … new magnetic technologies, new materials, but I think one of the biggest impacts that has not only impacted fusion, but allowed those other technologies to come up too, is just computing.

Our ability to model and move forward on some of these scientific and technological developments because of increased computing power has really been a difference maker. It’s very difficult to make measurements in a fusion reactor because 100 million degrees is pretty hot. So as a result, we really rely on models and computer simulations to interpret and understand some of the things we’re seeing.

As computing has extended, the sophistication of those models has gotten better and we’re really getting to the point where we have a good enough understanding that we feel like we can make some of these big steps again and we feel confident about some of the predictions. And that’s what you see being manifested in the industry’s reinvigoration.

Hansen’s lab is working on plasma-related technology that could lower the cost of fusion. In this video of their work, the hourglass shape is the wall of a device containing plasma. Inside the vessel, the plasma naturally relaxes into a donut shape. The ghostly image of the plasma is created because hotter regions emit light in different wavelengths, and the high-speed camera used to capture the image is only sensitive to one of the wavelengths.

GW: If one of the companies succeed, how quickly could fusion provide power?

Hansen: Once you get the thing to work, there are still a lot of other things that need to happen. Fusion reactors are extremely safe, and we don’t have the risks that we traditionally think of with nuclear power, but it’s also not wind or solar so there’s some regulation structure that’s going have to be created. There are other materials and things like the whole rest of the power plant has to come together.

But depending on how quickly someone can get the fusion part of it to work, that could be very fast.

I’m fairly familiar with Zap Energy’s concepts that are very cheap and relatively small scale. If something like that or something like Helion that’s on this smaller scale, cheaper side you could see that ramp up pretty fast. It would be very different from these large power plants that people traditionally would think of when they think of fusion energy or other systems.

GW: Fusion power has been decades in the making, and there must still be naysayers. What is their case against the technology, and how do you answer them?

Hansen: People who associate it with traditional nuclear power have concerns given the history of how that has been handled [see Chernobyl and Fukushima disasters] … But we really need to make clear that fusion is fundamentally different. The reason that [commercialized fusion energy] hasn’t happened yet is it’s so hard to create the conditions that allow it to happen. But that’s part of what makes it so inherently safe, because you can just immediately shut down the system. All the fuel that is in there is now inert. You have none of these things that can lead to bad consequences in current nuclear fission systems.

The other thing is people who basically think we should funnel all the money into other types of renewable resources. But you have a challenge with intermittent sources [like wind and solar that aren’t always available]. At the moment, they’re extremely cheap and they’re great, and we should definitely be investing in that. But there’s a little bit of an open question as you try and approach 100% carbon free, you do have to deal with that intermittency. And so that will raise the cost.

I think fusion would fit really well in there. I personally would argue that that’s a good investment but, I can see the see the other side. There are some battery people out there and smart grid people who would say that we can do it this other way. But in government funding, at least, there’s all the different peer review and competitive proposals to try and make your case.

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Science Clean energy Climate change Climate tech Ctfusion Fusion Helion energy University of washington Zap energy