The founders of Amazon and Microsoft are putting their fortunes into little-known fusion energy companies. Jonathan Frochtzwajg digs into a story that has strange parallels with fiction.
Inside a laboratory near Vancouver in British Columbia, an alarm is blaring. In the middle of the industrial warehouse stands what looks like a cannon from a spaceship, about five metres long and festooned in wires.On the other hand there's Stanford's Paul Ehrlich:
None of the lab's red-coat-wearing technicians seem fazed by the noise. The siren, which alerts workers to don protective earmuffs in case of a blown fuse, precedes every test “shot” on this prototype nuclear fusion reactor – and these engineers have performed well over 50,000 shots over the past five years.
That speed – currently, 50 to 100 tests a day – would not be possible within the bureaucracy of a public lab, where the most prominent research in long-awaited fusion energy is being conducted. But this is a little-known company called General Fusion – funded by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, and free to pursue technological revolution at its own, breakneck pace.
General Fusion is just one of a pack of private fusion firms to catch the attention of physicists and investors. Unencumbered by red tape, these venture-backed companies believe that they can find a faster, cheaper way to fusion than government-sponsored projects, and some very influential people agree: besides Bezos, Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen and PayPal cofounder Peter Thiel are also backing firms at the forefront of fusion development. Some of these enterprises are rather shadowy: the company Allen is invested in, Tri Alpha, operated for years almost entirely in secret – until recently, it didn’t even have a website.
The combination of wealthy moguls and fusion is curiously reminiscent of the 2012 Batman movie ‘The Dark Knight Rises’, in which Bruce Wayne’s company builds a fusion reactor behind closed doors. The movie wouldn't win any awards for scientific accuracy, but it got at least one thing right: this world-changing technology may indeed be ushered into existence by a moonshot-minded magnate.
To many of us, fusion, whose advent has been predicted and postponed as many times as doomsday, is still far from reality. To these uber-successful businessmen, it's a good bet. What do they know that we don't?...MUCH MORE
"Giving society cheap abundant energy is . . .like giving an idiot child a machine gun"
-Los Angeles Times, April 19. 1989