A month ago, The Cleantech Open – the world’s largest clean-technology accelerator in the world- awarded the top cleantech startups of this year in such categories as Agriculture, Water & Waste, Energy Generation, Green Building, Chemicals & Advanced Materials, Information and Communications Technologies. To me the most astonishing discovery was the winner in the Energy Generation category – Helion Energy, a young American company, which aims to enable commercial fusion energy by 2019.
Helion Energy develops a fusion reactor (fusion engine), inside of which two plasmas – clouds of hot ionized gas containing hydrogen isotopes hurtle toward each other. The clouds collide inside a burn chamber, merging into a single entity. An electromagnet surrounding the chamber squeezes the plasma, raising heat and pressure to conditions required for fusion and energy release. Then, as in the case of conventional fission reactor, released energy drives a turbine that produces electricity.
It turned out that along with Helion Energy, there are at least two other startups that are also developing nuclear fusion technologies. The Canadian company General Fusion develops a system which uses a sphere reactor filled with molten lead-lithium mixture that is spun to form a vortex with a cavity in the center. Plasma that is composed of the deuterium-tritium fuel is then injected from each end of the cavity. Outside of the reactor, an array of pistons drives a spherical compression wave into the liquid metal. As the wave travels and focuses towards the cavity, it becomes stronger and evolves into a strong shock wave, which compresses the plasma into fusion conditions.
Another U.S. company Tri Alpha Energy is working on a form of fusion called “aneutronic,” which delivers electricity straight from the fusion process without the use of a turbine. Aneutronic fusion tends to use different atoms – hydrogen and boron, instead of “conventional” fusion, which uses two isotopes of hydrogen- deuterium and tritium. Unfortunately, the company stays secretive and doesn’t even have a website. Its only one presentation was released in 2012.
At the same time nuclear fusion is one of the major technological challenges of the 21st century. It can become almost inexhaustible, environment-friendly and safe source of energy. That’s why since the Mid-20th century, practically all developed counties have been involved in fusion research. Unfortunately, humanity hasn’t still managed to create commercial production of fusion energy. Currently, the most ambitious project in this field is International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER). The project is funded and run by seven member entities – the European Union, India, Japan, China, Russia, South Korea and the United States. Over €15 billion have already been invested in the project, but the first energy is expected to be produced only by 2030.
That’s why for me it was a real discovery that along with huge intergovernmental projects, there are young companies that might start a new era in global energy. It reminds me the SpaceX project, whose impressive achievement has made a big step towards commercial space. So, maybe as in the case of SpaceX, nuclear private firms’ dynamism and entrepreneurial spirit will open the door to nuclear fusion energy?