The world is once again grappling with the consequences of our addiction to suicide fuels. It’s 2022, and here we are trading sanctions and artillery fire with the same petrodictators we plead with to sell us more oil and gas. Not exactly the stuff of hope and change.
So what’s the offramp from the Punching Ourselves In The Face Expressway? One thing we know for sure is that it’s paved in renewable energy. New solar arrays are cheaper than operating existing coal plants in more and more of the world. The price of onshore and offshore wind is dropping precipitously. Nuclear fission is thankfully getting a fresh, objective chance. There’s renewed interest in geothermal. Advances in batteries and other forms of storage are moving at breakneck pace.
Yet, for all their promise, the existing crop of renewable options may not be enough to keep up with the word’s insatiable demand for energy. As incomes grow across Africa and Southeast Asia, economies everywhere will electrify. This won’t just be driven by the trappings of a burgeoning middle class life, but also massive grid strains like water desalination and carbon removal. Aggregate power demand could easily triple. We need cheaper, denser, renewable baseload energy everywhere.
At Lowercarbon, we believe it will come from fusion. Against the backdrop of all the fucked-up-edness in the world, there is unrelenting progress unfolding in the universe of plasma physics that has us feeling distinctly optimistic. From Cambridge to Kyoto, Seattle to the South of France, there are several startups and national labs in an all out sprint to be the first to cross Q=1, the point where a fusion reactor generates as much energy as it consumes. We’ll still have a lot of work to do before the electrons charging your iPhone come from a deuterium-tritium reaction, but one or more private companies and public research groups will achieve Q>1 very soon and then be on a path to commercialize fusion within a decade. The stuff we read about in science fiction books as kids is finally happening. Still holding out for the flying cars, teleportation, and anti-gravity Back To The Future hoverboards we were promised, but I guess we’ll settle for ubiquitous, carbon-free, planet-wide energy.
Oh wait, we forgot the announcement…
So here’s the buried lede: Earlier this year, we raised Lowercarbon Q>1, a $250m fund to advance the most promising fusion companies and accelerate the day when we can rehab our way out of this sludge-gargling addiction.
Of course, this didn’t come out of nowhere. We’ve already been the world’s most active investor in the fusion sector having backed a wide range of approaches including tokamaks, stellarators, lasers, sheared flow z-pinch, and even some batshit insane orbitraps. (If you know what that last one means, maybe you should be working here.)
Remind me again, what’s fusion?
Hey, glad you asked! Fusion, the energy source of the sun, the stars, and most of the rest of the known universe, is the holy grail of clean energy: limitless, carbon-free heat and electricity. Plus, unlike in fission, there is zero risk of a meltdown and the waste is small and doesn’t last for millennia. This is the dream indeed.
Whereas nuclear fission splits big heavy atoms like uranium and plutonium, fusion joins small ones together. To fuse atoms, they need to get so close to one another that they counter the very force that holds an atom together, i.e. the electrostatic force, the force that brings together a positive charge (proton in the nucleus) with a negative one (electron outside of the nucleus). When atoms are hot — and for one of our companies, that means 150,000,000°C(!) — about ten times hotter than the core of the sun — those electrostatic forces lessen and the chances of atoms fusing together increases significantly. That state of being is called plasma. It’s the fourth state of matter after solid, liquid, and gas. Share that nugget at your next dinner party and then ask for someone to pass the dessert because you just earned seconds. Just don’t get any chocolate on the mic you just dropped.
Scientists have been working to harness fusion since the dawn of the nuclear age, yet despite many bold predictions over the years, no one has yet been able to achieve more energy coming out of a reaction versus what was put in (unless you count a top-secret government experiment in the early 80’s where they set off a few uncontrolled fusion reactions at the base of a mountain and where the people present will give you an assortment of winks, nods, and shrugs if you ask about energy breakeven).
So what does Q>1 mean?
The relationship between the energy required to ignite a fusion reaction and the energy the reaction itself produces is known as the “fusion energy gain factor,” and it is denoted by the character Q. Values of Q greater than 1 have eluded fusion researchers for decades, but achieving it will be like Roger Bannister running the four-minute mile. (A pretty obscure reference that might be influenced by my decidedly mediocre times on the high school cross country team.)
Q>1 is the Kitty Hawk moment for energy. It’s Lindbergh crossing the Atlantic, Armstrong and Aldrin bouncing around the moon, and Bell calling up Watson because it would be another 120 years before he could just text him memes.
To be clear, it’s no longer a matter of if this will happen, it’s about when, and when is sooner than you think. The science of fusion is no longer a pipe dream. For many approaches, the physics is (mostly) understood, and the focus is upon building the reactors, scaling up the power banks, and engineering solutions to harness the energy generated. Q>1 has shifted from hope to an inevitability. This milestone, when achieved and published, will dramatically accelerate flows of talent, capital, and attention into the industry.
What is accelerating fusion so quickly?
For decades, each advance in science’s understanding of plasma physics revealed new and unexpected obstacles that kept fusion out of reach. That’s changed. The space is rapidly accelerating. How? Consider the rapid progress in this broader context:
- Compute Power: Plummeting costs of compute power and a generation of data engineers steeped in machine learning have unlocked new computational methods that have led directly to breakthroughs in simulating plasma physics, massively cutting down on cost and time. Experiments that, just a few years ago, took years to physically design and setup, can now be executed with high-fidelity, entirely in the computer, in mere hours/days.
- Novel Materials: Advances in materials science and promising developments in additive manufacturing have changed the game for building magnets, lasers, electrodes and so much else that will be required in commercial caliber reactors.
- Shift to Private Companies: For most of the history of fusion research, progress has been driven by government agencies, university labs, and multilateral international organizations. While they continue to push the envelope of research, increasingly it’s private companies that are making some of the most material advances. Government is, and will be, helpful. But government, well, moves at the speed of government.
- Policy Falling into Place: The combined effect of the White House and DOE outlining a plan for commercial fusion this decade, the passage of the IRA, and DOE’s recently-announced public-private partnership to accelerate commercialization of fusion are all pointing in the right direction.
- Range of Technical Approaches: The above factors are accelerating a range of methods and techniques from teams with incredibly diverse technical backgrounds pursuing surprisingly distinct angles. There are easily more than 50 private fusion companies now operating around the world, and that number is growing quickly. From stellarators to tokamaks, powerful lasers and Z-pinch generating current conductors, and some methods that have yet to be shared publicly, the advances are not only thrilling but also complementary to each other. Most teams are working with isotopes of hydrogen, but others are hoping to fuse heavier elements like helium or boron with lighter ones. Nothing like distributing the eggs across multiple baskets.
Each of these factors is combining to make the stuff of fantasy into reality. It’s happening, and much faster than most realize.
That’s exciting, but what does fusion make possible?
It’s easy to think about fusion as nothing more than a tool for generating cheaper electricity just like wind and solar. Cheers to a generation of dads who will no longer have to yell at their kids to turn off the lights and keep their hands off the thermostat, but this is a lot bigger than that.
You see, fusion will bring with it a completely new scale of power availability and ubiquity that’s admittedly hard to imagine. Frankly, the idea that a few atoms could unleash limitless energy without dangerous risks is just something we haven’t ever let ourselves deeply believe. Let alone that it could come in a range of sizes from kilowatts to gigawatts.
Let your imagination run wild. With fusion, everyone on Earth could have 24/7 clean electricity, on or off-grid. This means cooling and heating for everyone in every building. Air quality will improve and pollutive particles will be scrubbed. Forests will no longer be cut down for fuel and farmland will be more productive. Food and fertilizer prices will decouple from the cost of fossil fuels. Everyone on the planet will have access to clean water and humanity will recapture all of the CO2 we have previously emitted into the atmosphere and de-acidify the oceans. Water will be pumped to mitigate sea-level rise and flooding. Compact reactors mean planes will stay aloft for years and space travel will be accelerated. The geopolitics of the world will rebalance to mitigate the influence of OPEC and Russia. This is just a fraction of the list of possibilities.
The upside of all this is that fusion will be experienced worldwide, and there is no single greater catalyst for environmental equity than fusion power. If that doesn’t move you, well, what if I told you that, for the first time in your life, you will feel absolutely no shame for driving fast with the windows down and the air conditioning on? That hits home, right?
We are all-in on Fusion.
At Lowercarbon, we exist to show the world that climate investing is just damn good business. Fusion companies will be among the most valuable enterprises in history. More importantly, they will undoubtedly change more lives and give humanity a better shot than anything else that has come before. I’m proud of all our work here, but fusion gets me a little choked up.
I was around 7 when I read my first book by Buckminster Fuller. In the decades since, there isn’t another thinker in history that has influenced me and my work more than Bucky. His Dymaxion Map hangs on the wall when I work on climate, and it reminds me that all the nations of Earth actually inhabit one contiguous landmass. As I reflect on fusion, I am reminded of something he wrote long ago and that has become a rallying cry here:
I feel the hope, urgency, ambition, and responsibility of that message now more than ever. At Lowercarbon, we are doing everything we can to ensure Utopia wins. Over the long haul, fusion is our best shot.
So, let’s f’ing go.