Nuclear power is having a bit of a low moment these days. But that's just because we don't know how to do it right, the way the sun does. General Fusion--a startup that just announced that Amazon.com billionaire Jeff Bezos is providing financial backing as part of a $19.5 million funding round--claims it's going to solve the nuclear problem by creating clean, harmless nuclear power from water.
You read that correctly--Bezos is betting on nuclear fusion, the holy grail of nuclear nerds everywhere. Today's nuclear plants generate power from fission, a process that splits atoms to release energy as heat. The simple version of the nuclear fusion process--which is what happens on the sun--goes something like this: isotopes of hydrogen atoms fuse together to make helium. The reaction releases incredibly large amounts of heat, which is used to power steam turbines.
The amount of hydrogen isotopes found in one liter of water could generate the power of 1,000 liters of gasoline. Some of the hydrogen isotopes for the process can be found in seawater, and others can be found in lithium. This means that nuclear fusion should be able to provide virtually unlimited amounts of clean energy (according to General Fusion, we have enough lithium for 23,000 years of fusion energy). There is also no risk of meltdown or production of long-lived nuclear waste. In other words, there will never be a nuclear fusion Fukushima disaster.
In the past, no one has been able to create a controlled fusion reaction that creates more energy than was used to start it. So General Fusion certainly sounds a little crazy in saying that it can. But the company is confident, claiming that it will have a full-scale proof-of-concept fusion generator within four years. The key, according to General Fusion, is its Magnetized Target Fusion technology, which traps plasma in a magnetic field and then compresses it to high temperatures and density.
If the plan works, General Fusion's nuclear plants could be cost-competitive with the capital and operating costs of today's coal plants. It all sounds a little too good to be true: scalable, ultra-safe, reasonably priced, and unlimited nuclear power? It's the kind of breakthrough that really gets a tech billionaire's heart pumping--but we'll have to wait four years to see if General Fusion can actually save us from our energy woes.
[Photo by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center]