ABINGDON, England – Harnessing fusion energy into something commercially viable – and perhaps, ultimately, a clean energy source that will replace fossil fuels for centuries to come – has long been considered by some like the ultimate shot.
But investor interest in fusion energy continues to grow slowly and the number of startups in the field is multiplying, with around 1,100 people in several countries making a living in these companies. An industry is taking shape, with a growing network of companies supplying highly specialized equipment, such as the powerful magnet components needed for fusion devices.
The UK government even recently saw the need to enact regulations for fusion energy – a kind of milestone for a booming industry.
No one knows when fusion energy will become commercially viable, but boosting private investment is a growing alarm regarding global warming.
“No one has a better plan to deal with the climate crisis,” said David Kingham, one of the three co-founders of Tokamak Energy, a company that has raised around $ 200 million, mostly from private sources. .
At Tokamak Energy, one goal is to eventually heat the hydrogen isotopes enough for their atoms to combine in a reaction that releases enormous amounts of energy. It is the essence of fusion, often described as the energy behind the sun and the stars.
At the company lab in a business park outside of Oxford, there is a warning on the public address system every 15 to 20 minutes that a test is coming and everyone should stay outside the room with the fusion device, which is 14 feet high with thick steel walls. There is a purr that lasts about a second. Next, a monitor shows an eerie pulsed video from inside the device as a powerful beam projects into a superheated gas known as plasma.
During the test, Tokamak’s prototype machine, which cost 50 million pounds (about $ 68 million) to build, hit 11 million degrees Celsius. Scientists estimate that they must reach 100 million degrees Celsius, or about seven times the temperature in the sun’s core. They hope to get there by the end of the year.
One of the Tokamak’s control room scientists, Otto Asunta, 40, a senior physicist, said that since joining the company six years ago, the number of employees has increased tenfold to 180 , while the work became more and more sophisticated.
“These are world class devices that we are building,” he said.
The name of the company refers to a type of device invented in the Soviet Union and now the main focus in the field. Tokamaks attempt to achieve fusion by using strong magnets to contain and compress the superheated gas, creating a kind of lightning in a bottle.
The company was founded in 2009 by scientists who believed they could do more in a small, agile business than staying in large institutional labs, like the UK Government’s Fusion Research Center in Culham, or ITER in the south. from France, where a very large device – about 100 feet in diameter – is being built at a cost of $ 25 billion.
At the time, the decision was lonely; now they have a lot of company.
Since the early 1990s, the number of merger start-ups has grown rapidly. Andrew Holland, chief executive of the Fusion Industry Association, says there are at least 35 companies in several countries, including the United States, Britain, France, Canada and China. They have raised a total of $ 1.9 billion, much of it from private sources, according to a forthcoming study by the association and the British Atomic Energy Authority.
Why put money on a distant quest that never brought in a dime? Investors say they are drawn to the prospect of a rapid entry into a potentially revolutionary technology: a fusion reactor that produces far more energy than there is. Such an achievement could have enormous commercial promise.
David Harding, the founder of two investment management firms which have holdings estimated at £ 27million, is a major backer of Tokamak Energy. He said he had long been drawn to the idea of ”unlimited and cheap energy through scientific magic”, but now “the whole boost of global warming makes it seem even more obvious “.
Investors say they are already seeing gains. Mark White, chief investment officer of the UK Science & Innovation Seed Fund, which gave the founders of Tokamak their first £ 25,000, said that judging by the prices paid in a capital raise last year, the total investments of his £ 400,000 fund were now worth around £ 7.5 million. In this regard, Tokamak Energy’s overall value is around £ 317million.
Another investor in the merger is Vinod Khosla, founder of Khosla Ventures, a venture capital firm based in Menlo Park, Calif., Which supports Commonwealth Fusion Systems, a spin-off company of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
In an interview, Mr Khosla said the key to making a decades-long project like the merger acceptable to investors was to break the business down into stages that investors could watch before investing more money.
Commonwealth recently announced a successful test of what it calls the most powerful version of the crucial magnet type to many merger efforts, an achievement that investors applauded.
“I don’t think we will have a hard time funding it for the next round,” Khosla said.
Fusion supporters say advancements in magnets and other areas have increased the chances of success. Contrary to its reputation as a long-term industry, with profits for decades to come, “there has actually been tremendous progress,” said Phil Larochelle, investment manager at Breakthrough Energy Ventures. Breakthrough, a venture capital firm chaired by Bill Gates, has also invested in Commonwealth.
Scientists on the ground have said the influx of private money and the pursuit of various approaches to the problem are positive.
“It’s hard to predict which of these will win in the end, but there will be a lot of good R&D activity,” said Jonathan E. Menard, deputy director of research at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory.
The coming years, however, will require large increases in spending, according to merger executives. Tokamak Energy wants to build a pilot fusion machine at a cost of $ 1 billion using the powerful magnets it has developed that provide the pull of Earth’s gravity thousands of times. The device could be used as a base at the heart of power plants or for other commercial uses.
It’s not easy to persuade investors to go from single-digit commitments of $ 1 million to the $ 50-100 million installments needed for another generation of prototypes.
“People always measure return on investment with the usual metrics,” such as a company’s revenue, said Michl Binderbauer, general manager of California-based TAE Technologies, which has raised around $ 900 million, the largest amount of money raised publicly. by merger start-ups.
These pressures led Mr. Binderbauer to try to make a business out of some of the technologies that TAE developed on the merger route. A subsidiary of TAE is developing particle beam cancer treatments. Businesses, he said, are easier to sell for investors.
Fusion supporters, however, say a tipping point can happen when big investors rush to participate. “Once the money starts to get behind things, the sky is the limit,” said Mr. Harding, the founder of the hedge fund. “There aren’t a lot of merger projects in the world, but there are a lot of investors.