7 founders explain what fusion power needs to go mainstream

5 min read
7 founders explain what fusion power needs to go mainstream

If the 2020s are going to be the decade of AI, then the 2030s could be the decade of fusion power — that is, if the sector’s startups are able to deliver.

Fusion power has never had a more solid foundation. Advances in semiconductors, magnets and, yes, artificial intelligence have driven fusion power forward faster than at any time in the last few decades. And over the last few years, startups in the sector have raised over $6 billion, according to the Fusion Industry Association.

That investment wouldn’t be possible if there weren’t startups to fund, and founders have been eager to meet the challenge. There are now dozens of fusion power startups probing a range of different approaches to reactor design. Which one will succeed? The race is wide open at this point.

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“There are a number of credible ‘shots on goal’ to deploy the first fusion energy pilot plant in the early 2030s,” said Christofer Mowry, CEO of Type One Energy.

The challenges in the fusion industry are great, but the potential of the technology is even greater. TechCrunch+ recently spoke with seven founders and CEOs of fusion power startups to understand the state of the industry today and where it is headed in the coming years. (Read the first half of our survey here.)

“Our understanding of how fusion works is accelerating,” said Thomas Forner, co-founder and CEO of Focused Energy. That acceleration has allowed fusion startups to grow more confident in their timelines, something that has defied the industry in the past.

With the finish line just over the horizon, the fusion power sector is likely to undergo some significant changes. The current crop of startups still have significant ties to academic researchers, and many are collaborating to solve some technical challenges they all face.

“There’s been a fair amount of collaboration on the technical side,” Mowry said. “However, I would expect that, as companies get closer to commercialization, technical collaboration will start to fade away or become more exclusively bilateral as supply chains are developed.”

Still, it appears academia will remain heavily involved, teasing out solutions to problems and training the next generation of fusion scientists and engineers these growing companies will require.

The pressure to deliver is real, said Kieran Furlong, co-founder and CEO of Realta Fusion. “Fusion needs to be commercially viable by the mid-2030s if we are to have an impact on climate change and the energy needs of 10 billion people.”

We spoke with:

(Note: The following interviews have been edited for length and clarity.)

Kieran Furlong, co-founder and CEO, Realta Fusion

When do you think the first fusion power plant will become commercially viable? What makes you confident in that date?

Middle 2030s. To be confident in that date would be to ignore history, as we humans have proven to be terrible at predicting the future. The New York Times famously declared that a flying machine was at least 1 million years away . . . two months before the Wright Flyer took off in Kitty Hawk, [North Carolina].

What I am confident of is that fusion needs to be commercially viable by the middle 2030s if we are to have an impact on climate change and the energy needs of 10 billion people. So, we — and other fusion companies — set a target and throw in its direction as much effort, ingenuity and capital as we can muster. There is an awful lot at stake for all of us.

Given the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s decision to give fusion a different pathway than fission, will improvements to the fusion regulatory landscape potentially unlock more investment?

It definitely helps, and I applaud the NRC for recognizing the inherent differences between fusion and nuclear fission. However, (over)regulation will always be a risk for a novel technology like fusion.

It is up to us, the people in the industry, to earn our social license and bring the public along with us by educating them about fusion and being transparent about not just the benefits of commercial fusion, but also the risks or costs associated with it. We need to engage in a dialogue with regulators, communities and political leaders to ensure that fusion is something people want as well as need (my opinion).

Mistakes have been made in the past with the introduction of new technologies, which the public (in some parts of the world) have shunned out of fear or because they did not see the benefits outweighing perceived risks. Genetically modified crops and nuclear fission are good examples of this.

Personally, I view acceptance by society as a bigger risk than the technical challenges that need to be solved. We have to work just as hard to ensure we have the public on board as on developing the technology. Regulators play a critical role in this and will also greatly influence the financial viability of fusion.

How collaborative are fusion founders, and do you find the sector to be more or less open to sharing than you expected?

Very collaborative and more open than I had expected. The sector is made up of “believers” who really see fusion as absolutely necessary for the future of humanity and are doing their part to make it a reality. We all recognize that if any of us can crack this, it will be huge. And we all know that the global energy market is sufficiently large for numerous solutions.

Different technologies may find different niches. For example, we are looking at industrial heat and power as our initial target market, as we think our technology has attributes that match those needs. Also, we see the potential for more aggressive early adopters in the industry (as opposed to grid-scale electricity generation, which may take longer).

Startups in the sector recognize that we have many common problems to solve (e.g., tritium handling for those of us pursuing deuterium-tritium fusion) and that we may end up collaborating to solve those, or buying a solution from a peer company.

This is quite different from what I observed in the biofuel industry during the clean tech boom around 15 years ago, where companies were very focused on peer startups as competitors.

What is the balance between academia and industry when it comes to pushing the envelope on fusion power?

Both are important. As I mentioned earlier, one of the retarding factors in fusion development is the availability of skilled talent. Academia plays a huge role in training the fusioneers the private sector needs. Research institutions (whether universities or national labs) are huge repositories of the expertise needed for fusion to succeed.

Identifying low-friction ways for the private sector to tap into that expertise will be critical to the rapid advancement of fusion technology. There is an important role for funding agencies to play in facilitating public-private partnerships that enable industry and academia to work together.

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