May 26, 2023


The Fusion Race (Packy McCormick x Rahul Rana, 5/22/23, Not Boring)

Imagine a bizarro relay marathon in which one runner carries the baton for the first 26.0 miles, opens up a backpack full of batons, and hands them out liberally to a waiting horde of sprinters to dash all-out for the final 0.2 miles. That's the best analogy we can come up with for this moment in the Fusion Race. 

Global governments are the marathon runner. From the race to develop thermonuclear weapons after World War II, to the $22 billion, 50+ year cooperative ITER reactor currently being built in France, to the National Ignition Facility's ignition achievement in December 2022, governments have led fusion research efforts for the better part of eight decades. 

The world's governments have run a well-paced marathon, producing something akin to a Moore's Law in fusion for half a century. The triple product - of density, temperature, and time - is the figure-of-merit in fusion, and it doubled every 1.8 years from the late 1950s through the early 2000s, as one type of reactor - tokamaks, a form of magnetic confinement fusion (MCF) - got larger and more powerful. 

In December, scientists at the government-funded National Ignition Facility (NIF) at Lawrence Livermore made headlines when they achieved fusion ignition, or scientific energy breakeven, for the first time in a controlled environment That is, they got more energy out of the fusion reaction than they spent on the laser energy used to drive it. The NIF used a different approach: inertial confinement fusion (ICF). 

The world rejoiced - fusion energy is possible! - and then sobered up - it was like a AA battery's worth of energy and, experts pointed out, commercial-scale fusion power might not arrive for decades. 

That's the joke in fusion, that fusion power is "always 30 years away." Funny joke, to be sure, but it may no longer be true. 

We're at the handoff point, from private to public, thanks to improving compute and machine learning, better magnets and materials, the diverse range of technical approaches that are finally becoming feasible, and dramatically increased capital availability for startups. 

Companies like Helion, Commonwealth Fusion Systems, TAE Technologies, General Fusion, and Zap Energy are the sprinters. Armed with $5 billion in funding, most of which has come in just the past two years, and decades worth of research made feasible by new tools, fusion startups are locked in a mad dash to the finish in what might be called Fusion Race 2.0. At the end stands commercial fusion and a healthy chunk of the $15 trillion global energy market. 

Posted by at May 26, 2023 12:00 AM