Hydrogen Hugs (aka Nuclear Fusion)

Instead of reading your tenth blog about Tesla, let’s talk about some companies that have the potential to completely change the game in energy and create a pretty killer business in the process. Let’s talk about nuclear fusion.



So, what’s fusion? Well it’s something kind of like what happens in nuclear reactors now, except not because it’s the exact opposite. Nuclear reactors basically take really large nuclei –Uranium or Plutonium – and smack them together until they break and make two smaller (but still super radioactive) parts. That’s cool right, energy with no GHG?! I mean we’ve got these elements we put in water, they make the water boil, and that can make electricity with no GHG – sweet! Well, not really because a ton of radioactive stuff results from that reaction, it’s super unstable, and sometimes a Homer Simpson enters the equation and the plant breaks and poisons everything around it. Epic fail.

Alright, fission kinda sucks; so fusion? Instead of taking two really big elements and smashing them together until they explosively break up Kardashian style, we take two really small elements and basically force them to hug. Except plot twist they really, really don’t want to hug. So to make them hug we have to heat the elements to a temperature which makes them phase transition to a plasma and that only happens under similar heat / pressure as is felt in the center of the sun – bummer. So basically we have to create a sun in some lab. But you might be thinking “hey, that sounds like kind of a fire hazard” and yep, you’re right because we don’t know of a matter that can contain that kind of heat and pressure also it takes A LOT more energy than you get in your standard Easy Bake Oven to heat stuff up like that and the fusion doesn’t last long enough to generate more energy than it takes to heat. But if we can make it last, we’d yield ~3-4x the amount of energy we put into this wonky elemental hugging booth. Also did I mention that the input could be water and the output would be limitless energy with no GHG and no radioactive material!

Business Context

As the pressure increases to find a non-fossil fuel source of electricity – which accounts for about a quarter (6) of GHG released today – so do the economic incentives to find this source. Enter the government and a bunch of really rich dudes from Silicon Valley like Peter Thiel, Jeff Bezos and Paul Allen (1). So, great, a bunch of billionaires and the government decided this is probably worth figuring out. The issue is that it turns out this is a REALLY hard problem to solve. To quote Elon Musk “it’s a very, very difficult technical problem, one of the most difficult technical problems that humanity will ever try to solve. But if we solve it, we will have ‘energy forever’.”(1)

So, who’s working on this now? Well there are three notable companies: Helion Energy, Tri Alpha Energy and General Fusion. All of these companies are establishing – or attempting to establish – a sustainable business model (read: trying to make hydrogen hug without burning their office down). They’re potentially founding an unprecedented business model in terms of profitability too since they’d generate 3-4x the energy inputted using just water as a base (remember 2/3 of earth is water). So, to get back to the prompt since I’ll probably be graded on this. How is their business model affected? They’re creating a whole new business model which is at least in part inspired by the pressures of climate change. Imagine if you came up with a technology so great that you could input a bottle of water and output enough energy to power NYC?! That’d be pretty awesome and actually that’s roughly on the scale of what we’re talking about here. How are these companies going to be affected by climate change’s physical manifestation? Once Miami is under water I’m pretty sure even Pitbull will be investing in a source of energy that won’t trash the planet. As pressure increases to cut GHG so will funding to find new sources of energy. How about threats? Well this technology could totally flounder or take 50 years to complete which wouldn’t do much good since we might all be living on what used to be the polar icecaps by then. What else should be done? Let’s fund research! MIT’s reactor just set the world record for pressure achieved in a reactor (woo) and that same day was shut down for lack of funding (womp womp) (4).

Of all companies I’d posit that these are going to be most affected by climate change and vice versa. Because, if successful they’ll put a near full stop to GHG created in the production of electricity which is the largest contributor to GHG and probably supplant traditional electricity suppliers in an incredibly profitable way. When’s this happening? General Fusion says six years (1); Uncle Sam says 1-2 decades – so stay tuned!

Word Count: 800


  1. http://www.nanalyze.com/2015/12/3-nuclear-fusion-energy-companies-for-investors-to-watch/
  2.  http://www.diffen.com/difference/Nuclear_Fission_vs_Nuclear_Fusion
  3. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/11/opinion/11Prager.html
  4. http://www.popularmechanics.com/science/energy/a23431/mit-world-record-nuclear-fusion/
  5. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alcator_C-Mod
  6. https://www.allianz.com/en/about_us/open-knowledge/topics/environment/articles/140912-fifteen-sources-of-greenhouse-gases.html/





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Student comments on Hydrogen Hugs (aka Nuclear Fusion)

  1. So it would seem that there is an “easy” solution to all our issues, that’s finally a good news! However just to be realistic here, how feasible is it? How likely is it that this product will actually come to life before we reach the critical stages of global warming? It all come back to where do you want to invest your money. Is it in a product that can solve everything with a likelihood of 0.000001%? Or is it in products and services that might only tackle part of the problem but with a likelihood of having a real impact on climate change of 80%?

  2. Jules, fascinating post! I’ve heard about the potential of fusion for years, but it seems like it’s always “just around the corner.” General Fusion’s estimate of six years seems incredibly optimistic. You mentioned that one of the main barriers to a prolonged fusion reaction our inability to develop a material with can withstand the heat generation for more than a few seconds. Has any progress been made on this front? If I understand correctly electricity generating fusion reactions have already been achieved, but until the major barrier of developing sufficiently survivable materials is achieved practical fusion energy plants will remain in science fiction land.

  3. Agreed with many of the comments above – fascinating post and fascinating topic. Indeed, if we can harness fusion, it will change our world forever. Fusion has received a lot of press recently due to how revolutionary it could be. As pointed out, however, there are numerous challenges facing fusion, and at this point it appears to remain largely hypothetical. As such, it’s hard to believe the 6 year estimate. With climate change such an immediate problem, and this remaining a far fetched solution, it’s hard to see it becoming a focus for energy solutions.

  4. Jules – this was an equally informing and laugh-inducing read! With a background in chemical engineering and energy, I’m a huge proponent for nuclear energy in any form. It’s captivating to imagine a future where fusion is the main source of energy worldwide. However, I believe it would be useful to analyze a specific company, their progress to date and practical expectations in the next ten years. Further, how successful has funding been in this space? Have any important technical challenges been overcome recently? Are there any other technological advancements that allow fusion applications to accelerate?

  5. Jules, great read. Given we are still in the early stages of development do you think that the group of billionaire investors mixed with gov’t funds will be sustainable? The binary nature of outcomes is interesting and reminds me of the very early stages of Biotech. It seems strange that they shut down the MIT reactor after a successful trial. Are there other potential negatives from creating energy this way? Would love to hear more.

  6. Jules – very very interesting. Great read. It would be great to know more about the current state at which the technology is at, any partnerships that might be formed (with CERN or whichever organization already does fusion) etc. The revenue potential seems huge (see excerpt below on Helion energy from Wikipedia) but there seems to be less clarity on feasibility. Definitely looking forward to more on this

    Helion Energy’s strategy is to generate revenue based on a royalty model of electricity produced with projected electricity prices of 40-60 $/MWhr (4 to 6 cents per kwh). Penetration of the new capacity market is estimated at 20% of market growth (2.5%) per annum eventually reaching 50% of new power generation worldwide – $52 B/yr. Gradual displacement of existing supplies enables continued growth to 20% of world electrical generation after 20 years with a net return of over $300 billion.[2]

    1. Imagine the disruption. What happens to the market for water? What happens to the market for all other fuels?

      Jules – I appreciate the post. Regardless of feasibility and time-horizon (which are obviously both extremely important) this is still a thought-provoking discussion and one that deserves attention. Six years is most likely too optimistic, but we also currently live in a world that contains technologies which were previously reserved for the Jetsons. I also appreciate your ability to utilize descriptive analogies while navigating a truly mind-boggling phenomenon.

  7. Jules – Fascinating post – also your ability to write about the intricacies of such a complex issue in a humorous manner was both very enjoyable to read and easy to understand.

    So how feasible to you think this is? The end of your post was citing timelines of 6-10 years but realistically is this something we will see in our lifetimes?

    How can we accelerate the process? Is there sufficient R&D from these three companies and billionaire donors or will it take stronger initiatives and focus to reach this in the next decade?

  8. Awesome read, thanks Jules. What’s most of the R&D energy (no pun intended) going towards at those companies? Is the biggest challenge just generating that much energy? Or containing it? Or channeling it in a way that allows for fusion? Would be great to talk more about this sometime — curious about the technology hurdles that people are trying to overcome.

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