Nuclear fusion is coming, says noted VC

You've heard about it for years, but technical advances are pushing nuclear fusion to reality, says a VC investing in the space.

Michael Kanellos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.
Michael Kanellos
3 min read

INDIAN WELLS, Calif.--Nuclear fusion will move from the lab to reality in a few years, a noted venture capitalist says.

"Within five years, large companies will start to think about building fusion reactors," Wal van Lierop, CEO of Chrysalix Energy Venture Capital, said in an interview at the Clean Tech Investor Summit taking place here this week. In three to four years, scientists will demonstrate results that show that fusion has a 60 percent chance of success, he said.

Wal van Lierop
Wal van Lierop Chrysalix

If van Lierop were some crazy guy off the street with an old stack of Omni magazines, you could dismiss him. Fusion--which extracts energy from nuclear reactions without the dangers associated with nuclear fission--has been studied for decades, but has yet to go commercial. Van Lierop, however, isn't a random individual. He is one of the earliest and more active investors in clean tech: Chrysalix started investing in clean energy in 2001. The firm's limited partners include BASF, Shell, and Rabobank.

Chrysalix's optimism is pinned on an angel investment the company made in General Fusion, a Canadian company that says it has found a way to hurdle many of the technical problems surrounding fusion. The company's ultimate plan is to build small fusion reactors that can produce around 100 megawatts of power. The plants would cost around $50 million. That could allow the company to generate electricity at about 4 cents per kilowatt hour, making it competitive with conventional electricity.

The company uses a technique called Magnetized Target Fusion (MTF) model. In this scenario, an electric current is generated in a conductive cavity containing lithium and a plasma. The electric current produces a magnetic field and the cavity is collapsed, which results in a massive temperature spike.

The lithium breaks down into helium and tritium. Tritium, an unstable form of hydrogen, is separated and then mixed with deuterium, another form of hydrogen. The two fuse and make helium, a reaction that releases energy that can be harvested. So in short, lithium, a fairly inexpensive and plentiful metal, gets converted to helium in a reaction that generates lots of power and leaves only a harmless gas as a byproduct. MTF has an advantage over other fusion techniques in that the plasma only has to stay at thermonuclear temperatures (150 million degrees Celsius) for a microsecond for a reaction to occur, according to the General Fusion's Web site. General Fusion has also filed for several patents.

Other firms, such as Venrock, have invested in nuclear fusion, but most avoid it. Lierop claims that's because most don't understand the fundamentals. (Interestingly, Venrock's partner overseeing nuclear investments, Ray Rothrock, is a nuclear engineer.) It is also politically volatile.

"I want to see it succeed, not only because I would make a lot of money, but because it would solve many of our problems," he said.

Other notes from van Lierop:

• Although onshore wind power is mature, companies building offshore wind turbines have to figure out a way to deal with corrosion and maintenance. It is going to be a big problem that we will hear more about in the next few years.

• Municipalities will soon begin to explore solar microgrids. In this scenario, neighborhoods will get a substantial portion of their power from local solar plants. By delivering power locally, utilities will save on the costs of transporting power.

• Tax breaks and tax holidays may replace solar subsidies in some areas. Electricity is taxed, but utilities offer subsidies to those who install solar power. By switching to microgeneration, cities will find it easier to just forgo taxation rather than try to run a subsidy program.

He's not a big fan of corn ethanol. "Corn ethanol is a scam," he said.