Nuclear Fusion In Four Years? Amazon's Jeff Bezos Is Betting On It

Ethonomic Indicator of the Day: 1,000 liters—the equivalent amount of gas you would need to get the nuclear fusion power of one liter of seawater.

the sunNuclear 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 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]

Reach Ariel Schwartz via Twitter or email.

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  • John Bailo

    Didn't he also think the Segway was going to revolutionize transportation...

  • Andrew Krause

    This form of fusion still has problems. First is the obvious; we're losing massive amounts of the energy of fusion by converting it to thermal, then to mechanical, then to electrical. Second, this kind of fusion process will still give off harmful radiation.

    There is a reactor design out there developed by a team led by physicist Robert Bussard, based on a technology originally developed Farnsworth and Hirsch that can deliver fusion without tricky containment fields and - with the right kind of fuels (helium 4 or proton-boron) will produce only beta radiation that can directly drive an atomic battery to produce electricity at near 100% efficiency. The last working prototype of Bussards research (done by EMC2 corporation) is housed at the SpaceDev facility in Santa Fe, NM. This is the technology we need to pursue.

  • David

    In the past, fusion has only happened in nuclear explosions. No one has able to do it in controlled settings, so General Fusion sounds a little crazy in saying that it can."

    Wildly, hugely, and frustratingly wrong. A Wikipedia search or even a sniff around the General Fusion website would tell you that large scale controlled fusion is achieved every day at dozens of labs around the world, and has been since the mid '60s. What has not been done is to build a large enough machine to allow more energy to be produced than is used to heat the plasma. The internationally funded ITER project in Cadarache, France, should achieve this, and more.

    The real challenge with fusion will be to design a machine that has an economically viable maintenance regime - the components and materials involved are subjected to incredibly harsh conditions.

    What is incredibly unclear about General Fusion is how they propose to achieve all of this before the end of the decade, and with such small levels of investment. The UK fusion budget is approximately £150M p.a. and we're optimistically pushing for commercial fusion some time in the next 30 years as part of the global effort!