Making a Difference

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Posts Tagged ‘fusion

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

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A Clean Nuclear Future, Build or Buy

As a long time investor and member of the board of Tri Alpha Energy it is clear that i am a believer in fission and fusion energy. Given that the work that Tri Alpha is doing is largely confidential i would like to share with you a brilliant article featured in the Wall Street Journal and written by our own tech hero Bob Metcalfe. Bob does a brilliant job of assessing the pros/cons and obstacles for companies like Tri Alpha. Suffice it to say, this is not just an effort to provide clean renewable power. This is a mission to change the balance of economic power for the next 1000 years. If we as a nation do not have a significant stake in the first commercial non-neutronic fission reactor then we are doomed to be dependent on foreign energy for the foreseeable future. This effort is our generations Apollo mission and we are doing it with out any assistance from the US Government.

JUNE 24, 2009

The New Nuclear Revolution

Safe fission power is our future — if regulators allow it.


After the Internet, the next big thing will be cheap and clean energy. Coal, oil and gas pollute and are increasingly expensive: We need alternatives. Because nuclear energy (stored among particles inside atoms) is millions of times more dense than chemical energy (stored among atoms in molecules), nuclear reactors belong high on our long list of energy alternatives.

Nuclear energy is released during fission and fusion. During fission, large elements like uranium are split into smaller elements. During fusion, small elements like hydrogen are combined into larger elements. These two processes have occurred naturally since the beginning of time — 13.7 billion years. The Earth is warmed naturally by its own nuclear fission reactors within and also by the sun, that big nuclear fusion reactor.

Today, 20% of our electricity is provided by 104 nuclear energy plants in the United States. These are already cheaper and cleaner than burning coal, oil and gas with all their pollutants, especially CO2. But these plants are all run on big old nuclear reactors, which nobody but the utility companies likes very much.

The good news is that the big names in nuclear energy — like Areva, Hitachi, General Electric and Toshiba — have recently been joined by a bevy of high-tech start-ups seeking to develop advanced nuclear-reactor designs for both fission and fusion energy production. So far, there are five fission and two fusion start-ups, among them Hyperion, NuScale and Tri Alpha.

The fission-reactor designs of the start-ups are very different from the existing plants and even from the advanced designs put out by the established players. Rather than proposing a few more big nuclear reactors, the start-ups are advocating many small nuclear reactors, variously called small, right-sized or modular. Though big power plants might still be built, they’ll run on numerous small reactors.

These new small reactors meet important criteria for nuclear power plants. With no control rods to jam, they are far safer than the old models — you might well call them nuclear batteries. By not using weapons-grade enriched fuels, they are nonproliferating. They minimize nuclear waste. And they’re economical.

All of the new start-up reactors are tiny compared to the 104 old ones, each of which was custom designed for and constructed at the site of its utility power plant. Small enough to fit on a large kitchen table, the new reactors can be manufactured at very low cost and shipped by truck to power-plant sites. As an Internet guy, these small fission reactors seem to me like the microprocessors that took over from the huge, air-conditioned, glasshouse mainframe computers.

As venture capitalists, we at Polaris might have invested in one or two of these fission-energy start-ups. Alas, we had to pass. The problem with their business plans weren’t their designs, but the high costs and astronomical risks of designing nuclear reactors for certification in Washington.

The start-ups estimate that it will cost each of them roughly $100 million and five years to get their small reactor designs certified by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. About $50 million of each $100 million would go to the commission itself. That’s a lot of risk capital for any venture-backed start-up, especially considering that not one new commercial nuclear reactor design has been approved and built in the United States for 30 years.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Department of Energy were both formed in the 1970s to develop nuclear energy and thereby reduce our dependence on foreign oil. But neither has reduced our dependence on foreign oil, especially not with nuclear energy. To find out why start by watching the movie “The China Syndrome,” which came out in the 1970s immediately before the Three Mile Island nuclear incident. Since then, the Greens have been anti-nuke obstructionists.

As we learned by building the Internet, fiercely competitive teams of research professors, graduate students, engineers, entrepreneurs and venture capitalists are the best drivers of technological innovation — not big corporations, and certainly not government bureaucracies. So, if it’s cheap and clean energy we want, we should clear the way for fission energy start-ups. We should lower the barriers at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for the approval of new nuclear reactors, especially the new small ones. In particular, we should drop the requirement that the commission be reimbursed for reconsidering new fission reactor designs.

Mr. Metcalfe is a venture capitalist with Polaris Venture Partners in Waltham, Mass. He is a trustee of MIT and a 2005 recipient of the National Medal of Technology for leadership in the invention, standardization and commercialization of Ethernet.

Written by Jim McNiel

June 24, 2009 at 3:15 pm