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Moonshots and sure shots

Why fusion needs enterprises and start-ups

Simon Woodruff is the founder and president of Woodruff Scientific, a US company that under contract to private and public institutions, researches and develops fusion technology to accelerate the development of economic fusion energy. Active in the fusion community, Woodruff hosts an annual Scientific Computing Bootcamp for undergraduates, has organized national workshops in fusion energy sciences, and is a current participant in two IAEA initiatives on compact fusion neutron sources and private fusion development.

The basic premise of private fusion development is that there are many paths to commercialization, and entrepreneurs can complement government programmes. We only have to look to the space launch industry to illustrate that point. A combination of clever public–private partnership programmes run by the US Government has led to cost savings across the board in space launch. SpaceX, Blue Origin and others have shown how this can be done.

Private ‘fusioneers’ think similarly, and ask: how can we make things less expensive? How can we use the latest innovations in materials, technology and artificial intelligence to reach viability? How can we reduce total capital costs and cost of electricity so that fusion systems can compete with combined cycle natural gas?

I’ve been following the story of private fusion enterprises very closely since my postdoc at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in 1999. The US Department of Energy ran a small programme called Innovative Confinement Concepts (ICC), which sought simpler and easier-to-engineer concepts for nuclear fusion. I helped to organize the ICC workshop series and there was a healthy overlap with fusion concepts being developed privately. Just down the road from Livermore, TAE Technologies, then called Tri-Alpha Energy, was setting up and getting going; up the road in Vancouver, Canada, General Fusion was starting up, and in the United Kingdom, Tokamak Energy, then called Tokamak Solutions, was being founded too.

I stepped out of Lawrence Livermore in 2004 to follow their lead and see if we could really expedite the delivery of fusion energy systems into the commercial market space. In the 22 years since then, these fusion ‘moonshots’ have collectively raised over US $1.5 billion to pursue their concepts, and a burgeoning fusion industry has sprung up to support these efforts.

Private fusion enterprises are optimistic — often giddily so. It is the intersection of entrepreneurship and advanced technology that has earned them almost cult status among CTOs and CEOs from other industries. But there’s ubiquitous hope, it has to be said. Many private fusioneers started out in government programmes with 20+ year development horizons but are now engaged in discussions of ‘cash neutrality’ and bootstrapping efforts in a ‘scrappy’ startup ecosystem. They’re supported in part by Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy’s efforts to straddle the chasm between conventional lab work and industry, through a series of small programmes like ALPHA, BETA, GAMOW and OPEN, with more to come, I imagine.

Tech to Market (T2M) is now also a thing for fusion. There’s regular discussion of ‘exits’: does the startup get bought out, does it go to market, does it sell intellectual property?
Can we do it before the investment fund lifetime expires?

Since leaving Lawrence Livermore, I have had the privilege of carving out a career working with private fusion enterprises, from a sonofusion startup in Grass Valley, California to an MIT spin-out, raising a staggering US $200 million in a Series A investment. Clearly there is renewed interest in both carbon and cash neutrality. Each entrepreneur and enterprise has a different technical approach (universally, smaller is better, however) and has a slightly different idea about their commercialization plan — some are keen on the moonshot approach, where all effort is focused on being first to market with something to generate power. But the moonshots (perhaps 20 in total worldwide) make up only a tiny fraction of the small business ecosystem that offers products and services supporting fusion.

In the USA, there is a Small Business Innovation Research grant programme supporting hundreds of companies doing things relating to fusion; whether that’s making ignitrons or capacitors, performing simulations, developing novel materials for additive manufacturing, or examining novel diagnostic techniques. Small businesses have lower overheads than the big labs. They are nimble and can pivot — offering one line of products one year and coming up with a different set of solutions the next. They are also innovative, keeping in mind the most important problems and finding solutions, and focusing on what might ultimately enable fusion energy to enter the marketplace.

In summary, the present of fusion contains fusion startups and small businesses. The future is bright for small!

May, 2021
Vol. 62-2

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