Jan 31 2019

Fusion in Five Years?

One time I would like to be wrong in my pessimism about some corporation claiming a huge breakthrough over a short time period. This could just be confirmation bias, but there seems to be a rash of companies over-hyping and over-promising on major breakthroughs. Just yesterday I wrote on SBM about an Israeli company that claims it will cure cancer within a year (Umm… No.).

Now today I see a news report of a company CEO claiming they will have fusion energy in a couple of years with commercialization in five years.

“The notion that you hear fusion is another 20 years away, 30 years away, 50 years away—it’s not true,” said Michl Binderbauer, CEO of the company formerly known as Tri Alpha Energy. “We’re talking commercialization coming in the next five years for this technology.”

I think the appropriate reaction to such a claim is extreme skepticism. The reasons are both general and specific. The general reasons I also covered in my SBM post. They include the fact that companies often have an incentive to overhype what they can deliver – primarily to raise funding. If you want someone to invest millions of dollars in your company, it helps if they think you are on the cusp of a breakthrough, and over a timeline that investors like. The “5 years” claim seems to be standard. I guess that is the most VC companies are willing to wait to make their huge profits.

In the research world we joke about the “5-10 years” claims for breakthroughs, which is linked to funding cycles. Essentially, researchers are claiming what they will achieve over the next grant cycle.

In either case there is also the desire to create a “buzz” about the technology in general and your own company specifically. This means getting headlines, which means making claims that stick out above the background. The media is all too willing to be compliant, because they have an aligned incentive for eye-catching headlines.

Further, I have to wonder if there is a personality/psychological factor at work. Is there something about “captains of industry” that makes them feel overly optimistic, that they can achieve the impossible through sheer will and determination? CEOs of big companies are a selective group, perhaps with selective pressure toward such optimism. Perhaps excessive realism is perversely selected against among CEOs. Do CEOs generally think they are Captain Kirk, who, when Scotty tells him the repairs will take a day, Kirk just says,  “you have two hours” as if that is enough to make it happen (of course in the fantasy world of Star Trek, it is)?

Another general reason for skepticism involves any time a company makes a claim for a breakthrough that seems to be multiple steps ahead of everyone else. There is a reason why research and development at the cutting edge of our most difficult problems (like curing cancer and fusion energy) takes years and decades. These are extremely complex problems to solve. In many cases we may not even have the basic science necessary to solve the problem. We may need to develop better materials, for example, before fusion power becomes feasible.

Advances in these areas occur in incremental steps, with the entire community paying close attention. There is also a research paper-trail showing the incremental progress. This all makes disruptive leaps not impossible, just unlikely.

With regard to fusion energy, this is one of those technologies that has been 20 years away, and always will be. That pithy joke refers to the fact that we cannot really predict how long it will take to develop a technology once you get past the 20-30 year mark. So when someone predicts a technology will take 20-30 years, they really mean we have no idea. It’s a placeholder, one that stays in place indefinitely, until we genuinely get close to solving the technology.

Fusion energy is still at the 20 years and holding status. So someone claiming they will have it in five years is truly remarkable, and probably not true.

For some further background, we are talking about hot fusion, not cold fusion (which is probably a fantasy). Hot fusion involves fusing hydrogen atoms under extreme temperature and pressure to release massive amounts of energy. This is essentially the process that powers the sun. Of course it takes a lot of energy to produce those extreme temperatures and pressures, and part of the challenge is doing that efficiently enough that the energy produced is greater than the energy consumed by the whole process.

One approach is to use a torus of magnetic fields to constrain a plasma of hydrogen, squeezing the atoms closer together until they fuse. This approach benefits from the development of more powerful and more efficient magnets. Another approach is to use high power lasers to push the atoms together – which benefits from the development of more powerful and more efficient lasers.

There are several teams working on big fusion projects, and I have been following their incremental progress. They are making steady progress, but it is still too early to predict when a viable commercial fusion reactor will be possible. If we did crack this nut, it would be a game-changer for human civilization. Fusion reactors can potentially generate massive amounts of green energy. If they can also be made cost effective, this would go a long way to solving global warming. Unfortunately, we can’t count on fusion reactors coming online in time, not even before mid-century.

Again – I hope I am wrong. I would love it if in five years I look back and say, dang, I was wrong. We cured cancer and fusion reactors are popping up all over the world. But if history is any guide, I would not hold my breath. These claims have all the red flags of CEO overhyping, without actual evidence to support such optimism.

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