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The Power of Optimism and Fusion

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In 1998, my friend and co-investor in Net-Tv told me about an incredible, also read implausible, investment he and his father were involved in. Tad Buchannan described the technology as a dumpster sized fusion reactor that could power San Francisco. Hearing something like this from anyone should send all smart money to the exits but this was Tad and Mike Buchannan and these were two very honest and trustworthy people. At the very least they believed in what they were investing in so I thought it was worth a look.


What Tad was talking about, in layman’s terms, was an electrical power plant fueled by a continuous fusion reaction. The best way I know to describe this is to say that the company was planning to bottle the sun.

A video from Tri Alpha


When you think about a star, if you ever do, you may wonder how it works, where does all that light and heat come from and how does it work for billions of years? To understand you need to break down Einstein’s theory of relativity. E=MC2 . Simply put E, Energy is equal to the value of Mass multiplied by C The speed of Light squared. In other words, the atomic weight of the two colliding atoms multiplied by the speed of light and squared. The resulting large number is the amount of energy that comes out of the fusion reaction. A star is a luminous sphere of plasma held together by its own gravity. The idea behind confined fusion is to replicate what takes place in star in a controlled fusion reactor and then capture that heat and energy and convert it to electrons.


A star has plenty of gravity to pull escaping atoms back into its plasma core to foster continuous reactons. In the case of Tri Alpha the gravity is created by a series of electro magnets surrounding a vacuum. The magnets keep the super heated hydrogen, plasma, in place while it is merged with boron. The game is keeping the plasma ball suspended and hot as new fuel is introduced into the system. The fusion reaction caused by the colliding atoms releases enormous amounts of heat and energy which can converted into electricity.


A competing company but agreat explanation of fusion.


Here is the bottom line. If it works you have a system that produces clean electricity from a nearly inexhaustible fule source, water and boron, and the only by-product is inert helium gas and no dangerous nuclear radiation. In other words, exactly what the world needs and more than likely too good to be true.


If this scheme had been surfaced by anyone other than Tad and Michael, who are really trustworthy individuals, I would have never taken a first look. After meet Norman Rosstoker, Michel Bindbauer, Harry Hamlin, Buzz Alderin and George Sealy it was clear to me that these men were serious and convinced the system could be built. As a childhood fan of nuclear subs, nuclear power and Jules Verne, I thought it was worth investigating and eventually investing.


At the time I was a General Partner at Pequot Capital and my job was to make investments in promising technology. The problem with Tri Alpha in my mind, and my partners, was the time required to reach a working prototype. Our investors expected returns in less than 7 years and this project could, and would, take much longer than that. So no one was too surprised when Tri Alpha failed the deal pitch and we all turned down the idea of investing as a fund. Subsequently I told my partners that I was going to invest personally and I was surprised to be joined by: Art Samberg, Larry Lenihan, Erik Jansen and Marco Arese. Art also called John Mack, then at Morgan Stanley and John joined in as well.


In the years and additional rounds of funding to follow Marco and Art played major roles in helping us to expand our investor base. Marco brought in a group of Italian investors which included Enel the Italian power authority. Art got serious and started bringing other serious investors.  Years later we would add NEA, and Venrock. As of this writing we have gone from our humble 2.5-million-dollar series A to raise more than 500 million dollars to develop the world’s first clean fusion reactor.


In 2006 I handed by board seat to Art and accepted a seat on the board of Interfusio the offshore holding company for Tri-Alpha. In time Interfusio will be responsible for licensing TAE technology around the world. In the meantime, I listen in on the regular TAE board meetings and I am comforted by the quality of professionals who are now running the board and the company including Dale Prouty who took over as CEO after founder and pioneer George Sealy passed away.


With the company now out of stealth mode and working on our first commercial prototype I am delighted and relieved to report that what was once the riskiest investment of my career may actually turn out to be the most successful and more importantly the most impactful invention of the 21st century. Imagine a world with unlimited amounts of cheap clean electricity. No more need to burn coal or go to war over oil fields. Every country can secure adequate amounts of hydrogen and boron and we can all enjoy cheap and plentiful carbon free power day and night.


This will happen. It will likely happen in the next decade and it could not come at a better time. If we are to reverse the negative impale increased carbon has had on climate change, we will need to convert every power plant on the planet to use Tri Alpha technology. Our cars can be electric and eventually our larger ships can have mini TAE reactors. Planes will need to continue burning dinosaur juice but that is a tiny part of the overall carbon problem.


I am extremely hopeful that the invention of Fusion Electricity has come in time to halt the ceaseless pollution and damage cause by developing and burning fossil fuels and can also lead to a more equitable distribution of wealth and basic human necessities. Of course this last part should not surprise you, after all it should be clear by now that I am an eternal optimist.





Written by Jim McNiel

May 1, 2016 at 7:09 pm