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!
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!
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